In the recent hit movie and book “The Hunger Games,” young heroine Katniss is tossed out into a computer-enhanced, forest-like setting and left to defend herself against the elements, as well as other young people intent on killing her. In her attempts to survive, Katniss uses a bow and arrow both to defend herself, and to kill animals for food. She cleverly charms and forms alliances with those who might help her. She escapes computer-generated brushfires and man-eating beasts alike. I’d hazard a guess that the Greek poet Homer would have concluded that Katniss was woman of “areté,” which to him described a person of the highest effectiveness, using all of his or her faculties (strength, bravery, wit, and deceptiveness), to achieve real results.
The word areté refers to a concept defined somewhat differently by various sources throughout time. Many would say areté means, quite simply, excellence. According to dictionary.com, this word of Greek origin is “the aggregate of qualities, as valor and virtue, making up good character.” Aristotle used the term as a measure of how well something or someone fulfills its intended use. Yet he also admitted that the definition of areté is not something that can be easily agreed-upon. Finally, in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” author Robert Pirsig uses areté as a synonym for “Quality.”
Personally, I equate the concept of areté to reaching your highest potential as a human being. In his book Way of the Peaceful Warrior, author Dan Millmann wrote a quote that while simple, says it all. When Socrates is talking to Dan about how lousy he is in many aspects of his life while being great at gymnastics, Socrates says “Do you know what’s the difference between me and you? You practice gymnastics, I practice everything!”
It is my opinion that far too many people in this life don’t strive for areté, but rather settle for mediocrity. They live in a world where “just okay,” is good enough. If they have a job that pays the bills, and if their basic needs are met, they are happy. But why not strive for more?
We live in a world that still values the specialists and experts and considers them more valuable. However, those people are also marked by patterns of partial-completeness. I was a specialist and my life took a new focus: Find out those gaps and holes in my culture and now I am filling them up one at a time.
Consider the idea of today’s average man: He goes to work every day for a large corporation that sees him not as a person, but as a number. He comes home and flips on the television, and watches whatever news stories Channel 4 or 7 or 12 has deemed relevant. He goes back out and eats dinner at whatever restaurant the television commercials steered him towards. Perhaps he plays softball with his drinking buddies, or maybe he takes his son to a movie. The next days he gets up and does it all again.
Now contrast this with a description from H.D.F. Kitto’s book “The Greeks,” referenced by Robert Persig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in a chapter about men pursuing excellence:
“The hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom…. He can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by a song. He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing areté.
“Areté implies a respect for the wholeness or oneness of life, and a consequent dislike of specialization. It implies a contempt for efficiency… or rather a much higher idea of efficiency, an efficiency which exists not in one department of life but in life itself.”
- …you know exactly where one mile is from your front door… in every direction.
- …you separate your laundry in whites, colors, and tech.
- …you see another person running and get jealous.
- …when you see a sign on the highway telling how many miles an exit is and you think “I could run that”
- …a marathon is a training run.
- …26.2 sounds like an aid station.
- …instead of memorizing what street you need to turn right on, you need to remember what city the street is in.
- …half of the dishes you take out of your dishwasher are water bottles.
- …when you substitute (in conversation) hours ran, instead of miles ran…..
- …when you Change your Garmin to a Suunto because the Garmin only lasts 8 hours.
- …when duct tape becomes an option!
- …you spend three hours listening to a podcast about ultra running…entirely while running…and it wasn’t even your long run.
- …when you have to repeat the distance of your next race to everyone !
- …your long run involves a train ride to get home.
- …peeing in a toilet seems … unnatural.
- …when a dark moment lasts 20k or more and you’re fine with it.
- …you have more shoes than your girlfriend.
- …when you decide running dusk till dawn is a great idea.
- …when you apply super glue to your blisters so you can keep running.
- …you utter the words “only a 50″!
- …3-4 hour runs are recovery runs.
- …when you DNF at 83miles.
- …when you have to go to work for a rest.
- …when the gear for your training runs have to include toilet paper.
- …when you reply to the question “Are you insane?” with an unhesitating but casual “yes”.
- …you finish on a different day to the winner.
- …during the week you run to work. Work. Then run home from work… and the mileage is equal to or greater than a full marathon.
- …when you go for a run with an injury that would send a “normal” runner screaming for a doctor. You assume it will loosen up in 5 to 10 miles.
- …when a head lamp and extra batteries are part of you race gear, but the race starts at 8 am……
- …when you start your race shaved and when you finish you need to shave.
- …when you always prefix the word “marathon” with “only a”. As in:
“I was starting to get tired but there was only a marathon to go.”
“My preparation for the race didn’t go too well, in fact my longest training run was only a marathon.”
“I would have entered the race but it didn’t seem worth the hassle as it was only a marathon.”
- …when the morning papers have the results of a race that you are still running in!