Four Minutes

On 6 May 1954 Roger Bannister did something that would change the world forever. He became the first person to complete a mile in under four minutes. Before this seemingly simple feat – this moment in history, no one – officially – had managed to break the so-called “four minute barrier” for completing a mile run. It was proof that this was not a physical but a psychological barrier. There was, apparently, nothing limiting the human body from running those 1609 meters any faster, and yet, no one had been able to accomplish the task before that day in May. Then, almost as if some real barrier had been breached, more and more runners were successful where all others previously, save one, had failed.

Bannister did nothing that anyone else was not capable of, however. He just proved it could be done. Records are broken every day, and as each major competition nears, we can expect to see faster and faster times. Since Bannister’s world record-setting run in 1954, times for completing the mile or 1600 meter race have decreased. The four minute barrier is routinely crossed.
When we talk about milestones, we can also include events like sending people into space and landing on the moon. Naturally, there were technological barriers as impediments to achieving such monumental tasks, but there were mental barriers at the heart of the problem. It goes back many years to the invention of the automobile.

“That the automobile has practically reached the limit of its development is suggested by the fact that during the past year no improvements of a radical nature have been introduced.”
– Scientific American, Jan. 2, 1909.

There were many educated opinions that the automobile was a passing fad, one that would never take hold or even work. There were fears that travelling beyond 50 miles per hour could somehow be harmful to the human body. (Nevermind that it didn’t appear to affect other creatures like birds and horses.)

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” He understood the power of believing in one’s self, the strength of the human spirit. When we look at a task – especially one that no one has ever succeeded in doing – we often say to ourselves, “impossible,” and walk away. Even things that have been accomplished by others seem to daunt us. But why do we our doubts and fears get in the way?

You have heard stories of people performing amazing feats of strength when under extreme duress. This is often attributed to adrenaline coursing through the body at times of unusually high stress, enabling muscles and tendons to exert unprecedented forces from a mere mortal. But adrenaline cannot be solely responsible for the things we accomplish. Indeed, it is thought that our efforts are mostly mental instead of physical. When NASA decided to send astronauts to the moon, the obstacles were so numerous that some scientists declared it impossible. The technological advances necessary to transport humans safely out of earth’s reach, through the void of space, and landing, and departing from the surface of the moon, were monumental. But the desire to make it happen, the belief that it could be done, that was the larger obstacle. Within a decade, NASA astronauts had advanced from barely being able to orbit the earth to playing golf on the moon.

Anything we set out to do as individuals or as a people is more likely to be a success if we have the confidence that it will happen. After Bannister’s record-setting run, suddenly, more and more runners were able to run a mile in under four minutes. It wasn’t because they were now stronger or had more stamina. Instead, it was knowing that it was possible. That’s all. The current world record is 3:43.12. In 60 years, humans have managed to chip away at what was thought to be an impenetrable wall. The women’s record for the mile is now 4:12.56. Someone will break this record someday. And she will change the world.

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The Shame

Deena Prichep writes about, among other subjects, food. She recently contributed a story to NPR’s weekly installment, “Kitchen Window”, where she made the case for removing the stigma around eating breakfast for dinner. As she puts it, this is accompanied with the sense of not being a “Proper Adult”, a grown-up, someone who goes to work and pays bills and watches the news. Breakfast-for-dinner, it seems, makes some of us feel shame, as if it were somehow forbidden. But the shame and embarrassment we feel comes from how we perceive what others might think of us rather than how people actually judge us.

I’m talking about little things that essentially won’t bring dishonor to your ancestors. For instance, I like the films of Hayao Miyazaki, who has produced some of the most beautiful animated family films in history. But with titles like “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castles in the Sky,” admittedly, I wouldn’t dare tell certain people of my guilty pleasure. There’s that word, “guilt.” Why should I feel shame? These movies are enjoyed by many, child and adult alike. Miyazaki is a celebrated director, and his works have earned him numerous awards. Certainly, he doesn’t feel any embarrassment for having produced such art. I can watch cartoons if I wish. You can read trashy romance novels or Tivo General Hospital. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

For some people, admitting something as human as being overcome with emotion is to be kept to ourselves. In the West, men are often ridiculed (by other men) for crying. In fact, there are a number of things we men might not admit, for fear of being humiliated by the other guys. But I know other men who sew, and they are a quiet community. I usually only tell women of my hobby, and I have felt a little bit of shame upon discovering that some guys have found out about it and said something. I suppose it triggers the memories I have.

When I was in middle school, for reasons mysterious and unknown to this day, I enrolled in homemaking class. Now, there was one other boy in the class with about 15 other girls, but that didn’t seem to help. Even if half class were boys, I think I still would have felt what I felt. The school I attended was kind of an experimental design they were toying with in the late 70’s. There were no walls separating classrooms, and homemaking was scheduled around lunchtime. Thus, there was a daily parade of students – many I knew – going past my “classroom”, first on their way to the cafeteria, then on their way back. Inasmuch as I wanted to take the class, I was not prepared for the shame I felt being seen mixing cake batter or sitting at a sewing machine. When the students would pass by, I would “drop” something and reach down to pick it up, imagining no one would notice. My teacher gently confronted me one day, asking if I was ashamed to be in her class. I couldn’t tell her the truth, not wanting to face it myself, or wanting to spare her feelings, but I’m sure she knew what was really going on.

It is this feeling that we don’t live up to others’ expectations that drives our sense of shame. Last week as I was walking across the parking lot on a very cold day, I slipped on a patch of ice and fell backward, landing on my butt. Whack! I lay on my back on the ice for a few seconds without moving, not because I was injured, but because I was sure someone saw me, and I was mortified. But I got up, and I drove home safely. I was not hurt, and I am probably the only person on earth who knows I fell, or who even cares.

Does it even matter? A few years ago, I took my wife and our niece to a production of Romeo and Juliet, performed by the Texas Ballet Theatre. During the pas-de-deux in Act I, scene 2 – the balcony scene – the two lead dancers were in perfect step with one another when, suddenly, Romeo tripped and dropped Juliet, then fell on top of her, both dancers crashing to the stage with a resonating “thud”. But they recovered almost instantly, picking up in time to the music, and the scene concluded beautifully. The ballet was otherwise flawless. And the cast received a standing ovation. Later, although I remembered their mistake, it was the rest of the performance that left the lasting impression on me. If the dancers felt humiliation, they should know that they did well. Not just anyone can get on a stage and throw a ballerina up in the air, twist around, then catch her and continue as if it was nothing.

We are imperfect beings. Everyone knows this. We shouldn’t expect ourselves to be perfect, and we understand when someone else isn’t; or, at least, we ought to understand. Feelings of shame and/or embarrassment for something as innocuous as having waffles for dinner or walking around with your fly open [checks pants] are completely internal and aren’t a true reflection of who we are. So what if someone makes fun of you? Are you a lesser individual as a result? Of course not. Our sense of worth ought not be defined by what others might say or think about us. We are free to be ourselves, and we’re allowed to make mistakes, as long as we mean no harm. Besides, the dude giving you a hard time about your Hello Kitty collection probably has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wallet.

Silence

There’s an old Arabic proverb that says something like, “if what you are going to say is not more beautiful than silence, be still.” There is so much noise and calamity in the world, and this has been a problem since the beginning of recorded history. Ever since people stopped following herds and instead planted crops, we have been creating a lot of noise. Noise comes in many forms, but it is most intolerable as talking heads on television, and radio personalities.

But I love sound. Loud and dissonant sounds. Soft and sweet melodies. I love the sound of wind through the trees. I love how the ocean crashes on Huntington Beach. I enjoy the sounds of Mahler and Beethoven. And I like Green Day and The Who and David Bowie.

Silence, it seems, is highly overrated. True silence, of course, is rare. You would have to submerge yourself into a sensory deprivation chamber or don a space suit to achieve nearly absolute silence, but your heart beating and your breathing would interrupt that silence. Unless you are completely deaf, absolute silence would be extremely difficult to bear, I believe. Even mild quiet for prolonged periods – those awkward pauses and lulls in conversation – are beyond what most people are comfortable with. Often, during religious and secular ceremonies, the congregation or spectators will find it awkward for things to proceed without musical accompaniment. A wedding is a good example of this. It would be unthinkable in Western culture for the bride to walk down the aisle in silence.

On the other hand, silent processions are quite striking and send a powerful message. And the sharp contrast of a silent grave-side service for a veteran laid to rest only to be interrupted by a 21-gun salute is overwhelmingly beautiful, strange as it might seem to some. A thunderstorm rolling across the plains is one of my favorite sounds. Hearing the rain beat against the roof, and thunder shaking the walls might be frightening to some. But there is something in the violent potential of nature that I find fascinating.

Occasionally, I like to drive with the windows down and with some loud music playing like I’m 20 years old again. I don’t have the equipment to really impress anyone, but I love the noise. It comes with the mood, I have found, that accompanies spring and summer. (I’m a warm weather kind of person, and temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius are most welcome.) The abrupt silence that happens when I get to my destination is as jarring as is the sudden onslaught of Metallica when the car starts  back up and I’ve forgotten that the music was on.

Of course, I’ve only been talking about volume of sound. But noise is all around us in ways we don’t notice. Air conditioners run almost constantly in summer months in the South, and the “white noise” they generate goes unnoticed until the unit shuts off. Then, you can really tell how loud it was before it stopped. The contrast is dramatic, and this demonstrates just how jaded we have become to the sounds around us. We are constantly bombarded with noise. And it can have an effect on us over time.

I generally don’t watch television. But I know people who have the TV on constantly, and they find my house uncomfortably quiet. Some people cannot sleep unless there is some noise, be it a radio or TV or an electric fan. They say these white noise generators are good for sleep. Some of the devices are quite sophisticated, being able to produce waves and wind and other sounds of nature. Some people can sleep through much more noise than I find tolerable. I am a light sleeper, and I tend to wake up when there are only slight changes in my immediate environment. I wonder if a gentle noise device would help.

Sometimes I cherish the silence. I believe we humans need it. Absorbing noise is like breathing in pollution. You need a break from it. It is said that “silence is golden.” I think that’s bullshit. But I agree that it can be very effective at times, as effective as a cymbal crash or a cannon blast is appropriate during the playing of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. I really dig those cannons!

Time to make some noise.