“Without a little madness, a man never cuts the rope and is truly free.”
Towards the end of the great film “Zorba the Greek”, the character Zorba advises his young friend “A man needs a little madness or else he never dares cut the rope and be free.” By madness Zorba does not mean insanity. Rather he refers to a willingness to enjoy something regardless of what others think. In a stunning moment of liberation and in response to Zorba’s statement the young man asks Zorba to teach him to dance.
Too often we limit ourselves for fear of what others will think. Too often we stifle creativity because it might be criticized. Too often we seek out a comfort zone then anxiously guard it, fearful of taking any risks that might carry us out of that comfort zone.
Even in religious practice we can come to fear madness. Jesus Christ clearly wanted to make us uncomfortable, yet we settle into a spiritual comfort zone where we don’t like to be challenged or feel uneasy. “Let me just go to church, hear a relatively innocuous sermon, then go home.”
One of my acts of madness lasted for over 21 years. I ran every day. Rain or shine. Sickness or health. I once even ran a mile after being discharged from an ICU because I needed to keep The Streak going! I remember being at a party when a man approached me and said he’d heard I was a runner. When I began to tell him the ICU story, his smile faded and he began to back up!
When one embraces madness, one is more likely to speak out. When a person embraces madness, he/she may indeed be judged as a troublemaker or even (as I once was) an “enemy of the church”. Yet madmen and madwomen often speak things we need to hear. I would argue therefore that madness stands as an antidote for spiritual stagnation.
By why a running streak? In 1987 when I first started, I turned 39 so I suppose a midlife issue was involved. The baseball player Lou Gehrig had long been a hero and was best remembered for his streak of baseball games played. At that time, we were also beginning to hear about a baseball player named Cal Ripken who himself was building a streak of continuous games. Would he pass by Lou Gehrig, people were wondering. Finally, when I was studying at Indiana University a young man made the news for taking the world’s longest shower. I was impressed. So, on February 21 1987 I took what was the first of many consecutive runs.
The Streak would contain many acts of madness in addition to the ICU incident mentioned above. Once as I was back from a run, I sliced my calf muscle on a license plate, an injury that required 18 stitches. The next evening, I was preparing to run the minimum mile when my wife stopped me. “What are you doing” she asked, already knowing my answer. “I’m going for my run”. She questioned the wisdom of doing this with 18 stitches in my leg so I compromised. “OK. If the stitches come out, I’ll stop.” The stitches held!
But the ICU incident tops the list. I was one week away from running in the Cape Cod Marathon. I had been having a lot of trouble with asthma so my wife suggested go the local ER to get a breathing treatment. The ER doctor put me in ICU! Mind you, I had run that Saturday morning but, being in ICU, I believed the Streak was over. However, the doctor discharged me on Sunday and my wife came to pick me up at 8PM. I could save the Streak! So, as I got into the car, I said “Now you know what I’m going to do when we get home.” She sighed and said “You’re going to run…” She insisted on coming to the nearby track to make sure I didn’t keel over.
The Streak ended in September of 2008. I had been preparing for a second time at the DC Marathon. After about 10 miles, my left foot became so painful that I had to stop running. I hobbled home. The next day I made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor. In the meantime, yes, I continued to run the minimum mile but when I went to see the doctor, he told me I had a stress fracture in my foot. The Streak came to an end.
Since then, I attempted another streak that lasted a year, ending with a knee injury. Today I typically run 5 days a week but have not attempted another Streak.
I would argue that madness can be a spiritual virtue. Obviously, I am not referring to insanity although some great prophets have been dubbed insane. To me madness means a willingness to step outside the norm, to do something that others might think strange. Clearly that something needs to not cause harm to or endanger others. Nor does an act of madness need to be dangerous.
As Zorba speaks to young Basil at the end of the movie, he is responding to Basil’s tentative approach to life and his escaping into books. He encourages Basil to live with passion. Basil hesitates then asks Zorba to teach him to dance. Earlier in the film Zorba dealt with a tragedy by dancing. Basil takes off his coat and tie and after dancing a bit, he starts laughing. The film ends with Zorba and Basil enjoying some madness together.
Madness can also involve doing things in an unconventional way. On a daily basis we are all under great pressure to conform. My own Catholic Church has in many ways become more rule-bound, in part because of the disastrous impact of the clergy abuse scandal. Dissension is not tolerated well.
Whether it has anything to do with my running streak I don’t know. But it has been brought to my attention that within the mental health community of El Paso, I am viewed as eccentric. I am also told I am viewed as more of a philosopher than a psychologist. Finally, I was recently told that I am viewed as someone who doesn’t BS people. I think I can live with that. An eccentric philosopher who doesn’t bullshit people.