Admiration and Awe: Learning from Redwoods

On September 17th of this year, the running world erupted when Eliud Kipchoge broke the men’s marathon world record at the Berlin Marathon. Mastery in any domain is mesmerizing, and this certainly was. Kipchoge ran 2:01:39, or a staggering 4:38 per mile. If you are like me, you have never run a single mile that fast. If you are like me, then by comparison, Kipchoge runs like a cheetah, and you run like a lion. A sea lion.

Kipchoge has a stunning reputation for longstanding mastery of the sport and for doing so, as far as we can tell, above reproach. He is the consummate exemplar for distance running—talented, humble, eloquent, affable, perseverant, and brave. I could learn a lot from him.

But after Kipchoge’s performance, my temptation was to be amazed, of course, but then to put him on a pedestal or to set him aside as an outlier, without ever bringing his achievement to bear on my own (comparatively meager) athleticism. I wanted to chock his performance up to rare natural ability, far beyond my own. Since by natural province Kipchoge is exceptional, then I don’t have to feel bad about how unremarkable I am in contrast. Friedrich Nietzsche describes it this way: With respect to the excellent person, “only if we think of him as being very remote from us, as a miraculum, does he not aggrieve us.” (1)

Conceptual Backdrop

In this column last month, I talked about our fraught relationship with the excellences of other people: We are tempted to envy, rather than to admire, our excellent peers. But let’s be serious: With someone like Kipchoge, Shalane Flanagan, or Kilian Jornet, my temptation is not to feel envy. Envy is a type of presumption: I feel that I am as good, better than, or perhaps more deserving of honors than you. What I feel toward extremely talented athletes is not presumption, but a type of despair. I fail to consider myself worthy of comparison at all.

Unfortunately, if I don’t compare myself to Kipchoge, this is a missed opportunity to learn all of the ways in which I fall short, or to identify needed areas of growth. So, this month, I want to talk this second type of error—the tendency to feel awe, rather than to admire, excellent athletes.

Definitions

To ‘admire’ is to construe another as excellent in some way (e.g. skilled, determined, kind, brave). (2) Admiration typically elicits emulation of the excellence observed. (3)

In contrast, ‘awe’ is veneration or reverential respect. A person struck with awe is often stunned to passivity. He “sometimes construes himself as lacking personal adequacy to ‘deal with’ the object of awe–to understand or otherwise get control of it.” (4)

Let me anticipate your questions:

1. Why does this distinction matter?

Awe is often inappropriate in the athletic context. We all put our sneakers on and try to run our best, whatever ‘best’ means relative to our abilities. While Kipchoge is far beyond us talent-wise, we have much more in common than not. Think about it this way. You are a sapling. Kipchoge is a redwood. You don’t yet know what kind of tree you can be (a spruce! a ficus! a redwood!). It is possible that the redwood has a much higher ceiling of growth than you ever will. But redwoods start as saplings, too, and they are fantastic at growing. Regardless of the type of tree (athlete) you are, it helps to surround yourself with redwoods (exemplars) in order to learn how they grow so well. Yes, it is more comfortable to compare myself to other saplings, but hey, I want to be a gigantic tree.

If I surround myself with gigantic trees, then two things happen:

  • I develop a clearer vision of what greatness is; and
  • I am humbled by how far away, and in what ways, I am not great. These are solid grounds for focused, directed personal growth—more so than a diffuse longing to be great without an exemplar showing the way.

2. Isn’t awe the humbler response, since I realize the extent to which Kipchoge exceeds me?

No. You can see someone as great, celebrate that greatness, and want those great things for yourself, all while being humble. Awe in athletics is often the pusillanimous response. (5) For Aristotle, pusillanimity is weakness of soul. I feel so lowly that I do not even aspire to virtue. This is a type of despair, and it is an unprofitable mindset if you want to improve. Maybe it is the case that I will never be a great athlete, but I am going to aspire to great things anyway. At the very least, this will bring out the best version of myself, regardless of how I compare to others.

My suspicion is that the reason we think of the masters in our sport as “very remote from us” or as “a miraculum” in Nietzsche’s words is that we overemphasize natural talent and forget the development they underwent to become champions—development that is open to us.

So, my advice is as follows: If you encounter a master, examine him. Then examine yourself. Articulate the ways in which he exceeds you. Maybe he has more perseverance, fortitude, or kindness. Maybe he has a better arm carriage or a more fluid stride. Then get to work on those exact things. Maybe you can’t be Kipchoge. But chances are, there are enough practiced vices in your person to keep you sufficiently occupied with improvement for a lifetime. Exemplars can show you, through their own excellence, what it is that you are lacking.

3. Are you really a sea lion?

Yeah.

Talent and Habit

“I wish I were as smart as [Professor X].” It’s 7 p.m. in late October. My husband and I are going for our daily school work debrief walk, and I am making a familiar lamentation about my lack of natural intelligence.

It was only because I was working on this essay that I paused to question my statement. The professor in question is a redwood—naturally gifted far beyond myself—and my temptation is to excuse myself from comparison because this person is extraordinary. But redwoods are also great at growing, and I could learn a lot about virtue development from this professor, too.

If I am being honest, what I most need are more intellectual virtues—rather than a greater allowance of natural talent—and this is in my own hands. When I struggle with my school work, it is not generally because I come to the limits of natural intelligence. (Though there are major limits.) It is because I fail to ‘stay’ with an argument. I make imprudent judgments about how to organize a paper. I am inattentive. All of these qualities are habits of mind I can actively cultivate, and this is a more productive framing than ‘wishing’ I were as tall as a redwood.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you think you have admiration or awe for our sport’s greats? Is your understanding of their greatness tangible or intangible? Can you comprehend their greatness in a non-miraculous way?
  • Do you find merit in the idea of admiring and therefore emulating the most talented people out there?

References

  1. Nietzsche 1996, 86
  2. Onu, D., Kessler, T., & Smith, J.R. “Admiration: A Conceptual Review.” Emotion Review. Vol. 8, No. 3 (July 2016) 218-230.
  3. Zagzebski, L.T. (2015). “Exemplarism and Admiration.” Character: New Directions from Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. p. 256.
  4. Roberts, R.C. Emotions: An Aid in Moral Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. p. 270.
  5. Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics IV

Photo: Thomas Wensil

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 13 comments

  1. Will

    Love the article Sabrina! A random note on my reading experience: interested in the Nietzsche quote in the third paragraph, I copied the citation at the bottom but was unable to quickly find the source material when googling it. However, when I googled the exact quote, I easily found the text in “Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits”. As a (sometimes) lazy consumer of online content, it would great to have hyperlinks to all of your fantastic citations :)

    1. Sabrina Little

      Thanks for the note, Will! I apologize for the incomplete citation. The book is Nietzsche’s Human: All Too Human, and it appears in a section on the cult of genius–section 162, page 86 of the Cambridge Press edition (Hollingdale translation). I’ll be sure to have the full citation in future posts. Thank you!

  2. Rachel

    “A person struck with awe is often stunned to passivity.”
    I like the distinction you make for awe in the context of athletics, where in the context of faith, this quote makes me believe a place of awe can be a place of rest. Thanks for the words…I’ll be thinking about admiration and awe all day.

    1. Sabrina

      I love it, Rachel. Yes, awe is absolutely appropriate in the context you describe, and I love the passivity/rest remark. Very true. It’s just unproductive between athletes, when you want to improve. I appreciate your insight!

      1. Cadence

        Sabrina, I just realized your posts are under “The Examined Run” – did you also consider “[Running] After Virtue”? :) I am so grateful that you are writing these posts! Like Rachel, I’ll be thinking about it all day too… and sharing it with my friends!

        Rachel, I appreciate your passivity/rest remark, too! With the second question from Meghan of finding merit in the idea of emulating the most talented people out there, I thought of the lives of saints, and “The Imitation of Christ” – how at first, a life holiness, especially when marked by miraculousness, seems too far from us. Saints can literally put on pedestals, but not to distance them from us, but for us to see their witness and follow after it, to come and follow after Jesus. And the awe we have in the context of faith is our resting in God. And in our passivity there, God’s grace is allowed to work silently within us. Ah, thank you for these reflections!

  3. Ondřej

    As a non native speaker, I occasionally need a dictionary for your articles. But it is always worth the effort (and pusillanimity is a beautiful word!) Thank you.

  4. Zak

    These are great thoughts on our relationship to our heros. One of the great things about our sport is that we get more of a relationship with those heros, from seeing them perform on an international stage to lining up next to them at a race to having them help out at an aid station.

    I’ll have to spend more time thinking about this on my next run, but I think that I feel awe at Kipchoge’s performance, but admiration for the way he runs, the way he trains, the way he approaches life to be the best at what he does. In the end, those things are what have value to my life, because I don’t have a prayer of running any 4:38 miles.

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