It was Marathon Monday this week in Boston, so I went out and watched as hundreds of people struggled to make it to the 26th mile. As the crowd cheered and reminded them of how good they are no matter how many breaks to catch their breath they take, I felt like I was having a cultural epiphany. The most reactions I’ve ever gotten was when I went jogging in the park back home. Where I got yelled at by a woman with a very big dog, which chased after me and appreciated by a group of dudes some five minutes later. So I decided jogging was too hazardous of an activity to indulge in.
Then again, my nation is not one of runners; we need a reason to move, beyond good intentions. We prefer short distances that do not suggest a great effort, great changes or sore joints. To us running seems pointless. It’s unnecessary sweat, when you can take it easy. So, in our eyes, people who strive to run, despite the dogs that might chase after them, resemble Forest Gump. Sweet, yet absolutely idiotic. The most effort we put into something was in ’89, but even then it was a short stride, which only caused us minor discomfort and a bit of a muscle fever. Both of which were altogether forgotten pretty fast.
And while ’89 was a little step towards democracy, it was also a big leap for those who decided to flee the country. To most of the ones who did, the Western ideal, which celebrates the loneliness of the long distance runner, seems whimsical and capricious. Because if you manage to run away from the society we grew up in, you have an obligation to yourself to not stop meters away from the finish line. And because there are other, more discrete ways in which you can stand up for what you believe in, without destroying yourself in the process. Although that also means that your heroism will remain personal, and will not make the Bruce Willis fans give you a round of applause.
The main difference, marathon-wise, is that back home no one will cheer for you if you pause to catch your breath, or if you give up as a whole. Because our society is not one that tolerates failure, rather, it rejoices when people fail. You might even get boo-ed once too often, and that should be sufficient enough to make you want to prove that you can do anything. There is no safety mechanism that helps you rebound when you don’t deliver. And it’s also tough love all the way to the finish line, because no one will encourage you, unless of course you take petty flattering as a major ego boost.
Western society, on the other hand, is a caring one. It pampers you and you feel safe to fail, because there will always be someone to support you when you give up. You can hire someone to give you pep talks, and you can rely on people to understand that your depression is not a sign of weakness, but, rather, an emotional passage. You can be a hero. And be praised for it.
As someone who learnt how to run before learning how to jog properly, I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or not. And while culturally I feel like the guy in the wheelchair who’s observing the marathon, I know that I, like the rest of the team of expat runners, have otherwise managed to overcome greater obstacles than distance in order to get where we are right now. Also, without anyone handing us water, or cheering for us, when we felt like we can’t possibly take another step. Cause that’s just how the Balkan boot camp works.
The article was originally written in English.
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