When I was five years old, I said to my mother, “I don’t ever want to grow up.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because,” I explained earnestly, “adults do not run everywhere they go.”
I love running. I have run marathons and ultra marathons for fun and in competition, over trails and roads, on five continents. Sometimes I ran all day, lost in the beauty of mountain tracks and drinking the sweet nectar of what it means to be alive. After I’d been hit by a car and suffered amnesia that left me confused and groping for an identity, running was still there for me.
Long story short: even though my knees aren’t able to travel at pace for such distances nowadays, running has always been an important part of my life.
So when I overheard a conversation recently while eating Indian food at a restaurant in Provo, it shook my world a little bit. The woman at a neighboring table told her husband about a mountain marathon taking place in the Wasatch Range. “All day they’re running on trails up there,” she said.
The man nodded, forked more tikka masala into his mouth, and said, “Hm.”
“I know,” she intoned with a grim shake of her head. She paused, looked at him seriously, and asked, “What’s wrong with people?”
What’s wrong with people?
I’ll be the first to admit sometimes it’s difficult to understand why folks do the things they do. For example, it remains a mystery to me why many people enjoy cooking. I don’t even like to heat water on the stove for oatmeal in the morning. And don’t get me started on math. Nothing could more thoroughly boggle my mind than the idea of somebody sitting down to a math proof and thinking, “This is fun!”
Honestly, I don’t even know why running is one of my favorite activities. Probably something in my DNA and in my past makes running light up the regions of my brain associated with pleasure and gratification.
Here’s what we do know, thanks to science and research: animal populations, including humans, thrive when a broad assortment of traits exist in their gene pool. The same principle grounds a common adage: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity strengthens a species’ shot at survival and success. So before we ask why anyone would bother to become a chef or a mathematician, maybe it would be wise to remember the good that comes from a broad range of skills and interest within our society.
After all, we like to eat, especially delicious food prepared by talented people. And it’s nice to know accountants keep our balance sheets balanced while engineers keep our planes in the air. For humanity, mathematics is good.
Our civilization depends on specialization. Only through a vast division of labor can we hope to develop new life-saving drugs, beautiful art, and advances in technology that increase our knowledge and improve our lives. Together, every person applying unique strengths and talents, we are far stronger than any one of us alone, not just for the horsepower, but also for the remarkable accuracy of these many brains working in synchrony.
James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, explains collective knowledge can actually be more insightful than individual understanding. For example, if you ask a large group of people to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, the average of all those guesses will usually be extremely close to the actual number of jellybeans, often nearer than any single estimation.
When I remember that woman’s comment – What’s wrong with people? – I can’t help but think she fell victim to a very human tendency, that of dismissing others who are different. But more than that, she missed a very powerful question indeed: What’s right with people?
Answer: a whole lot.
We come in many beautiful shapes, colors, and sizes, with smart insights in every realm, from cuisine to mathematics, with a taste for many things, from gardening to running marathons. As a child, I was wrong. Adults do run everywhere they go. It’s just sometimes running looks a lot like chess and woodworking and mountain biking and doing community service.
No moment offers more opportunity for misunderstandings and judgements than our election season. This is when our different views and opinions collide and vie for distinction, just as they should. However, while navigating this election season, it would probably do us good to grant those different voices respect because only in our diversity are we most brilliant.
Originally published 9/17/14 in the Moab Sun News.