Joy in the Storm

Sabrina Little writes about choosing joy… even when running or life is hard.

By on August 15, 2018 | 18 comments

I could hear the rain falling as I readied myself for an afternoon run, so I pulled on my white raincoat. My husband met me at the door in his black raincoat, and we headed into the storm. It was early November, and we both needed a study break—David from grading, and me from writing. I call my training at this time of year “prepositional running” because I fit it in before things, between things, and after things. My essays have priority. If my life were a living room, school work would be the furniture. Running would be the crevasses between couches.

I was the Noble Horse

In any case, we headed into the storm. About a mile in, the rain became torrential. David and I ran shoulder to shoulder—I in my white rain coat, and David in his black one—trying to keep pace with one another in the blinding rain. “We’re like the horses of the Phaedrus,” I told him. “I am the noble horse.”

There is an image in Plato’s Phaedrus of a chariot led by two horses—a black horse representing the appetitive or concupiscible aspect of the soul, and a white horse, which is spirited and honor-loving. The charioteer (reason) is tasked with bridling these horses and their competing affections to direct where the chariot should go. These three roles (two horses and a charioteer) depict Plato’s tripartite soul.

I propose this image not because I’m a Platonist. (I’m not.) I think it’s mostly unhelpful to think about emotions in this way—as wholly distinct from reason—since emotions themselves have cognitive content. But I latch onto this picture because I can’t think of anything that better illustrates my struggle in the middle of an ultramarathon than two powerful steeds pulling in opposite directions: I want to stop, and I want to continue. I am divided by competing emotions.

Your Joy Needs to Be Loud

Racing well demands emotional control. Life in general demands this, but there is something about the increased adrenaline of the athletic context that makes emotions seem louder and more capable of sabotaging our best intentions. For lack of a more sophisticated explanation, running hard feels like you’ve given your frailties a microphone. Do you lack confidence? You will hear about it during a race. Are you proud? Your pride will be on trial, and you’ll realize how flimsy your ego is. “When your emotions shout at you,” I often tell my team, “you have to shout back.” Your joy needs to be loud.

Oftentimes a substantial constraint on our flourishing as athletes is a failure to self-govern at the level of our emotional lives. Rather than reasoning through difficulty, we get nervous about things that don’t matter, or we acquiesce to the first inclination to stop running because we feel uncomfortable. To be clear, sometimes having a well-ordered emotional life means being terrified when the situation warrants it, then responding in kind. But in most cases—particularly in the athletic context—emotions like despair or devastating fear are probably inappropriate responses because (no matter how seriously we like to take ourselves) racing is just a game.

When I tell my runners to be joyful, what I want them to do is to lean into constructive emotions, and to reconstrue a race as an occasion for delight. What I don’t mean to communicate is that their race is not an occasion of difficulty. It definitely is. But difficulty is not a constraint on joy. I want them to realize they have some control over their emotional lives and that the first flash of discomfort they feel doesn’t have to be the final word on their day. They can be joyful “though they have considered all the facts” (Wendell Berry).

So why is this important? We often lament external constraints on our training—like the responsibilities and obligations that prevent us from getting out the door. But we forget about internal constraints on our wills, which take the form of the compulsion to cede to every passing appetite, to act on every impulse, and to sabotage our own goals by prioritizing immediate comfort when we feel tired. Sure, it might be the case that there are limitations placed on us by our context, but lacking well-ordered affections is going to negatively impact our training, too, and it’s something we can work to correct.

The rain falls torrentially, and David (black horse) and I (white horse) are running shoulder to shoulder. I pull slightly ahead of him and dictate the pace and direction of the rest of our run. If I want to flourish as an athlete, I need to lean into the right emotions and choose joy through the storms.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is your joy loud? As in, loud enough to drown out the difficulties of our chosen sport?
  • Do you see joy as an important aspect of your emotional life? Can you put words to what it means for you?
Sabrina Little

Sabrina Little is a monthly columnist for iRunFar. Sabrina has been writing at the intersection of virtue, character, and sport for the past several years. She has her doctorate in Philosophy from Baylor University and works as an assistant professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. Sabrina is a trail and ultrarunner for HOKA and DryMax. She is a 5-time US champion and World silver medalist, and she previously held American records in the 24-hour and 200K distances.