Dear Sirs, I am.

One afternoon in my junior year of high school, I was running around the school campus with my cross-country team when I found a nickel. My enthusiasm was perhaps outsized for the occasion. For whatever reason, I was very pleased. Then, 10 minutes later, I found another nickel. I did not stifle my enthusiasm here either, but I also did not think anything more about nickels after that. I generally like nickels just as much as the next person—no more, no less. Had the nickel incident ended here, I likely would not remember this day at all.

The following day, my teammates and I began our warm-up, and we found a nickel. Then we found a second nickel. Everywhere we went, there were nickels. As it turns out, my teammates were so appreciative of my enthusiasm the day prior that they arrived to school early and planted nickels around the campus—dozens of them. It was the sweetest gesture. I went nickel-hunting with my team, and it remains one of my favorite running memories.

I loved that team. They were some of my best friends, and many of them still are. We laughed a lot, empathized with each other through good races and bad races, and edified one another as we trained shoulder-to-shoulder. But, like many teams, it also had its problems. By the time senior year rolled around, the team was more divisive and internally competitive. Our big group runs would often splinter into smaller groups that were riddled with gossip. I observed these things and mourned the cultural changes. I also did nothing to fix them. I was complicit in the gossip, and I did not speak up when it happened.

I Am

There is an anecdote often told of G.K. Chesterton, an English author and philosopher. Around 1910, the London Times requested essays responding to the prompt, “What is wrong with the world (1)?” Chesterton’s response was brief:

“Dear Sirs, I am.
Yours sincerely, G.K. Chesterton”

I am what is wrong with the world. The idea is that, it is usually easy to identify the problems around us (as I did on my cross-country team) but oftentimes we are part of the problem, too (as I certainly was). I think this is a helpful reminder. In general, when I am upset with whatever is occurring around me, I should recognize my agency in the situation and entertain the possibility that I am part of the problem.

I usually am.

Mediocrity is Contextual

In a recent article by Eric Schwitzgebel, he argues that “most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers—not especially better, not especially worse (2).” We calibrate to the behaviors of the people in our context. This is great when our context is edifying, kind, and productive. It is not so great when our context is riddled with back-biting and hostility. In the first case, my norm-compliant actions sharpen me and encourage me to be better. In the second case, I am likely to morally regress, or to loosen my standards of action. This describes my complicity in the eroding context of my high-school running team. I noticed how others were acting and recalibrated to the new (lower) standards.

I have been thinking a lot about Switzgebel’s article lately. In particular, I have been assessing my role in current and previous contexts, and evaluating the extent to which I have adjusted my standards to match my peers. I have also been thinking about where to go from here, knowing that we are collectively disposed toward moral mediocrity.

So far, I have two ideas:

Choose Your Friends Well

If mediocrity is contextual, try to spend time with people you want to be like. This includes teachers, teams, and friends, to the extent that you can select these people. Schwitzgebel writes that littering and lying are contagious. We are also more or less generous based on the giving actions of the people in our contexts (3). If I am susceptible to being shaped by my peers, I should make a concerted effort to choose them well. Philosopher Christian Miller writes that we “should actively seek out those situations that are going to inspire us to act well, while actively avoiding those situations that are fraught with temptations and other pitfalls (4).” The hope is that spending time in a good context will encourage us to develop the right sorts of habits, to shape our characters in positive ways.

Be the Moral Buoy

The second idea is Chesterton-inspired. We don’t just have to succumb to the context we find ourselves in, becoming complicit when things are bad. Rather, we can choose to be the moral buoy in that context, playing a role in raising the culture. This is not always easy, but it is important. Otherwise, we make ourselves vulnerable and are complicit in the problems.

If I could go back in time to high school and do it all again (Please, God, no… My braces were unseemly…), I would have changed myself, in order to change the culture. I could have redirected conversations to stop the gossiping or been more confident in encouraging peers, rather than feeding into the competitive divisiveness. It’s not like I failed to recognize the problems. I just failed to do anything about them.

Final Words

Running is a community, and it is a great one. But it has its problems, too. Some of these problems are as insidious as cheating or a lack of trail stewardship, and others are a more mundane sort—like gossiping in running clubs or being critical of competitors.

I am realizing more and more that the problems I identify in the community are my problems, too. To the extent that I can, I want to spend time with running buddies who are the sorts of people I want to be like. And, whenever I am upset with the culture around me, I should also recognize my agency in the situation and entertain the possibility that I am part of the problem.

I usually am.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is it easier for you to identify a community’s problems in others rather than in yourself?
  • How can you be a moral buoy for your community? In what ways can you “raise the culture,” as Sabrina writes?

References

  1. Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 288.
  2. Schwitzgebel. “Aiming for Moral Mediocrity.” Res Philosophica 96, no. 3 (2019): 347-368, 347.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Miller. The Character Gap (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 204.

All photos courtesy of Sabrina Little.

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. Sebastian

    Love this article and message. On my computer screen at work, I have a similar (a bit more wordy) quote from the Buddha: ” Look not to the faults of others, nor to their omissions and commissions. But rather look to your own acts, to what you have done and left undone.”

  2. Amy M

    I love all of Sabrina’s articles, but this one rings especially true as my current workplace is rife with negativity and gossip and I am trying to find out where I exist in all of it. It reminds me of something I read online a few years ago. We all say we’re stuck in traffic, but that’s not quite true. We are the traffic. We don’t exist outside of it. Thanks for the thoughtful article, as always!

  3. Ric Moxley

    Profound, compelling, inspiring. I’ll keep this article up on my screen today, so I can chew a little more on its context. Thank you.

  4. Elle G

    If proliferation of gossip and a sports team divided into smaller groups were the worst outcome of indifference / not wanting to get involved, it would not be quite so bad. Depending on how high the stakes are, how powerful those one would have to speak up against, consequences of indifference & cowardice tend to be a lot more serious – ruined careers, broken lives, irreversible damage – because if only one person confronts those who are doing something wrong & everybody else hides in the back fake helplessly whispering to each other “I wish I could speak up too, but I have a mortgage to pay & pay for my kids college, you know, I can’t risk it. I feel bad for her though, I wish I could speak up too, but you know how it is”. And this is how it starts. Then it’s far more serious than just traffic jams. Perpetually closed roads & defective vehicles & nobody can afford the tolls. & everybody blames each other but stays in their lane. And occasionally maybe they think back to the moment when the difference could have been made but it seems so long ago – almost like it didn’t happen.
    I don’t know about choosing friends. I’d start at a more basic level.
    1. Don’t be a coward & stand up to bullies when it’s obvious the wrong thing is being done & the one person who is, will get hurt. Do the right thing. You are not a spectator in Ancient Rome. 2. And on a less morally heavy level – maybe assume good intent. It’s not that hard to be kind & try to give somebody the benefit of the doubt rather than giving up the free will & in favor of public opinion. People who aren’t afraid to stand up for what’s right will keep doing that – must be a cognitive impairment. Problem is, there might not be many left around anymore one day. Maybe even very soon.

    1. Sabrina

      Hey, Elle. Thanks for this comment. One thing I appreciated that you said is that it is easier in certain circumstances to stand up and speak out than in others. That is certainly true. Thanks your your thoughts here.

  5. Devon Yanko

    Sabrina,
    As always beautiful writing. I have been thinking about this very thing a lot lately and have realized that I want to do better. I have been feeling a lot of negativity proliferate our sport and instead of sinking down to meet that, like you said, I want to be the moral buoy. I have always wanted to be a positive influence on this sport and this article is a great reminder that anyone has the power and choice to do that. Cheers to continuing to work towards raising the culture of our amazing ultra community.

  6. Scott Dunlap

    It’s a beautiful article, thank you for sharing.

    As a parent, friend, and people manager, I’ve found the most powerful way to speak up is 1:1 to start, and using the same humble tone you use in your article. Pull them aside after the fact, share what you saw (gossip), how it made you feel, and your concern for the team. Share that it’s too important to not say something, and if they ever have to do the same to someone else someday, that you will have their back.

    Or as your article says, be that moral compass, and the friend that everyone wants to be around. :-)

    Thanks again!

    1. Sabrina

      So awesome, Scott! And I love the tactic of being non-aggressive, pulling people aside rather than getting in people’s faces to confront things. Thanks so much for the comment. P.S. The world misses your blog.

  7. Jason

    What a wonderful message! It’s so easy to devolve into “group think” and not be the one to step up. As a teacher/coach, I try to convey this all the time, but your article reminds me that I need to also be looking at myself and my own role in perpetuating gossip and negative energy, especially on group runs. “I am,” as well, and I hope to be better. Thanks as always for your insights.

Post Your Thoughts