In October of 2016, I crossed the finish line of a marathon, triumphant and joyful, and one step past the line, I felt my foot pop. Maybe there were indications that something was awry at an earlier point in the race or in the weeks preceding, but if there were, I cannot recall them. In any case, my navicular–a small, low-vascularity bone at the top of the foot–fractured that day. Since this marathon was my final tune-up race before competing at the Trail World Championships two weeks later, the fracture was costly. I cheered for Team USA from home, and it was too late for the team to call in any alternates. They raced a woman down.
I felt guilty about my absence, which was its own type of pain. But the worst part of my injury woes were probably the months of physical therapy that followed. The fracture was the result of bad mechanics and muscle imbalances, so I had to rebuild my body and learn better movement patterns. For a person who had been running a particular way since childhood, this felt nearly impossible. But I had two choices:
- I could continue to run with a broken stride and risk facing the same injury again; or
- I could do the hard work of dishabituating bad movement patterns and learn how to run in a more efficient, less-injury-prone way.
I went with option two. Sometimes it takes examining our habitual ways of moving through the world to realize the ways we live and move make us vulnerable to breaking. Sometimes it takes an inopportune break, some tears, and a lot of focused effort to change course.
Virtue is a Hexis
I have written in the past about how virtues are a kind of excellent habit—a hexis, or an active disposition of a thing. To be virtuous in a given way means to be inclined to think, feel, and act in the right ways relevant to that quality. For example, if I have the virtue of fortitude, I am disposed to be neither reckless nor cowardly, and I will dependably exhibit my courage in situations that require it. If I am just–a virtue that governs our relationships with others–then I am inclined to render to each their due (1), to respect persons and property, to identify and appropriately respond to unequal tools and opportunities, and, in general, to do what is right even when it comes at a cost to myself (2).
Moreover, to say a virtue is a habit or a hexis means we acquire virtues in much the same way that we acquire other habits—by practicing them. Aristotle writes that we “become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts (3).”
But what I have not yet communicated in my writing on character development is that sometimes the first step in building virtuous habits is to dismantle bad ones, some of which are deeply rooted and we are hardly aware of doing. This can be an uncomfortable, seemingly impossible, and tedious process, much like it was for me to rebuild my stride.
Justice is a Habit
Like many people, I have been reflecting anew on considerations of justice since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our local university campus closed. Classes were moved online, and professors were confronted with the reality that students had unequal access to the internet and were met by varying levels of home-life stability and support once they left campus. Nationally, we read reports that the virus had an unequal impact on certain communities more so than on others. The Black community and intercity populations in particular were suffering. Then issues of racism and oppression escalated in such a way that justice—what we owe to one another—became a pressing, practical concern rather than a theoretical discussion.
Obviously, these issues—much like my flawed running form—existed before they came to a breaking point. We just were not paying attention to them. Or, if we were, we were not collectively addressing them in a serious way. So how do we begin the work of becoming more just?
Ask Someone for Feedback
Without the critical eye of my physical therapist, I would have told you I had a smooth gait. Likewise, it is easy to listen to the assurances of your own conscience telling you that you are doing okay. It helps to have a friend who can offer an honest perspective.
You can’t rightly perceive and respond to the needs of others if you are unaware of what these needs are. Listen to the people who are sharing their stories right now. In the running community, there are many powerful voices and stories—for starters, we can learn from Kamilah Journét, Joe Gray, Marielle Hall, Alysia Montaño, Yassine Diboun, Michelle Carter, and Tianna Bartoletta.
Learn From an Exemplar or Two
Find someone who seeks justice in an excellent way. Learn and imitate, or join the work they are already doing.
Replace Bad Habits With Good Ones
Do the uncomfortable work of self-examination, and build new habits. Advocate for people in hard situations. Speak up if you hear racist jokes. Cheer for athletes who do not look like you. Donate time or money to a cause that is important. Diversify your reading list so you are not just learning from voices like your own. Stand up for someone who is overlooked. Maybe it will feel difficult to get started, but we become just by doing just acts repeatedly. This takes time and practice.
If I am habitually moving through the world in such a way that I am actively contributing to someone else’s vulnerability, this is no more sensible than running with a gait that makes my foot vulnerable to breaking. Fixing my gait was not something that happened overnight. It was a long, tedious process. So, my advice for a community that knows a lot about endurance is to keep working to make changes—in yourself and in your city—to pursue our collective good, even if the changes required are uncomfortable or come at a cost to yourself.
Call for Comments
- Can you think of an analogy from your life, outside of the current social-justice issues, where you successfully made a big change to help yourself or others?
- The process of making a personal change for the collective good that we have been facing with the current social-justice crises, is this is a difficult process? How have you been approaching these last few months? What mistakes have you made and what successes have you had?
- Thomas Aquinas. Summa TheologiaeII.58.1
- If you would like to think more critically about justice, I highly recommend taking Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s free online course—“Justice”—found here. He offers an overview of philosophers on the topic of justice. The course is engaging, accessible, and thoughtful.
- Nicomachean Ethics II.2.4.