Triathlons, Grad School, and Other Vain Pursuits: A Confession

It is not uncommon for scholars to spend so much of their time focused on books and the ideas held in them that they neglect physical activity, which is just as well, because strengthening the body is still deemed a less rigorous or less sophisticated pursuit within some corners of the professional cultural climate. This old idea still has broader influence. We almost take it for granted that one can’t be both intellectual and athletic. Just think of common stereotypes: the nerdy kid with glasses who doesn’t know how to throw a pass or, conversely, the high school football star who can’t pass his classes.

The pressure to focus so intensely on the intellectual side of life can be particularly intense for humanists, whose research less often concerns the physical body and more often focuses on human creation, its ideas, formation, and influence. In this funny and insightful essay, Ben Utter, a specialist in the literature, culture, and history of the Middle Ages, “confesses” to his hypothetical humanist professor that he has, in fact, abandoned his life of the mind to pursue, at times, a life of the body. This essay highlights the tension present in a professional culture that privileges one over the other and, through an expertly detailed historical analysis of this juxtaposition, invites us to reconsider the concept of dividing mind and body in the first place.


Forgive me, Mother Advisor, for I have dithered.[1]

It’s been eight months since my last dissertation chapter. My sins of diversion have included swimming, biking, running, and occasional weightlifting. Also (choke, sob), I’ve discovered the addictive pleasure of rock climbing.

I have not scribbled with my whole heart; I have not loved my thesis as myself. I am truly sorry, and I humbly repent.

I know you find my choice of extracurriculars baffling, but you have been gracious, slow to anger, and not swift to chide. But you don’t have to; I ought to know better. I’m dissertating on the theology of sin and human imperfection, after all, and the voices of reformist poets and homilists are strong in my ears.

And now, the start of my final year of dissertation work has made me aware of how deeply I have internalized the discourses of guilt and shame from medieval and early modern moralists. It is for this reason that I come to you for absolution, here, in private. These are not things to be admitted publicly, to be overheard by peers, colleagues—or potential hiring committee members—who might think that my race calendar betrays a lack of scholarly seriousness!

Does it?

Chaucer’s diligent Clerk was lean—but not marathon lean. “Run that you may obtain [the prize],” wrote Saint Paul—but he was being metaphorical (1 Cor. 9.24). And when he said to “Put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11), he likely would not have exempted carbon fiber triathlon bikes. Anselm speaks to me from the eleventh century, warning that “we must labor and not play nor foolishly waste time,”[2] and in a sermon on St. Andrew’s day, Hugh Latimer charged his parishioners to “ever remember, that when we have a vocation, we regard most above all the special points in the same, and see that we do them,” rather than unrelated things. “Hunting and hawking,” he scolded, “is but an accessory thing!”[3] And yet, I have accessorized my tweeds with Lycra. At what opportunity cost?

Forgive me, Mother Advisor, for hours misspent. I know only too well that time management was as much a medieval as a modern preoccupation, and prodigality with that most finite of resources was considered a kind of theft.

In the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, the allegorical Seven Deadly Sins line up to give confession, and when it is Sloth’s turn, he slobbers out a litany of misdeeds (much as I am doing) among which disgraceful habits of mind are prominent. Rather than attending to the state of his soul with the aid of scripture and edifying saints lives, he has squandered his time and attention hunting rabbits and listening to “idle tales at the ale” (5.5404). He has squandered his youth, the years that he should have been developing into manhood, and as a result he remains an intellectual child: “I idled about in my youth and did not give myself to learning,” he laments (5.446). And it gets worse! Midway through his litany of neglect, Sloth lets slip the startling fact that he has been a priest for thirty years (5.416). Parishioners do not live by bread alone, but also by the word of God, and this too has staled in Sloth’s keeping. This waste of time, as well as talent and opportunity, is an affront to—and robbing of—God, his own soul, and the souls in his charge.

Have I, too, neglected the students in my care? Gladly would I learn, and gladly teach—but often it doesn’t take very many hours of writing or grading before I forsake my office for the pool, gym, or running trail. Sloth-like, I am guilty of a weakness for “idle tales” (and for ale, certainly!), and though I don’t hunt rabbits, how many hours have I spent chasing a new PR across a marathon or triathlon course? Though to many it might seem that endurance sports are the very furthest thing from “slothful,” it is hard to deny that they are self-indulgent, often expensive, and always time-intensive recreations. Whether or not those hours spent swimming, biking, and running constitute the irreverent squandering of divine bounty, they are, of course, hours spent not doing my pedagogical or scholarly work.

In Chariots of Fire, Gold medalist Eric Liddell declares that when he runs he can feel God’s pleasure. When I run, Mother Advisor, I can feel your impatience.[4]

I sense as well the disapproval of some of my colleagues. Despite the many athletes among us, there are others for whom preoccupation with the mere physical is somehow professionally unbecoming, its own sweat-stained marker of “otherness.” Oliver Lee’s essay in Vox on his decision to walk away from academia provoked a great many comments from academics. One humanities graduate student wrote in an academic Facebook group discussion:

. . . if you can’t bring yourself to discount him after knowing that he’s also a bodybuilder who writes for the good men project and vice and got recruited to management at Abercrombie and Fitch out of undergrad, then I’m out of things to say.

In this remark, attention to the body is implicated by association with callow careerism, trivial journalism, and corporate opportunism. To build the body, in this assessment, bespeaks vanity—not only in its association with Superbia, the vice of pride, but also in the sense in which the writer of Ecclesiastes observes philosophically, “all is vanity,” and asks, “What hath a man more of all his labour that he taketh under the sun?” (Eccl. 1.2-3). Preoccupation with temporal things is futile. Poets and scholars, of all people, should know that flesh is hay, and will wither.

And yet, forgive me, Mother Advisor, for I cannot help but ask, what could be more vain, in both senses of the word, than the pursuit of this degree? Once it is framed, it will fit so nicely alongside my marathon medals and triathlon race numbers—and may likely be just as valuable. I grant that there is nothing intellectually fortifying about my “Jock Jams” Spotify playlist—but at least it drowns out the soundtrack to my dissertation writing: the slow dirge of MLA Job Information List updates, played in a minor key.

O, vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas!

I grow faint. I despair.

What can keep me from succumbing to hopelessness?

Ordinarily, I’d go for a run.

. . .

Forgive me, Mother Advisor, but I’ve just had a thought. Might my sin serve as its own salving? Endurance training, after all, helps to staves off acedia, the temptation toward despair.[5] Sloth, boredom, and restlessness are its symptoms. John Cassian warned monks to beware “the noonday demon,” and even as a not-monkish-enough scholar, I find something familiar in his description of its victim:

He looks about anxiously this way and that, and sighs that none of the brethren come to see him, and often goes in and out of his cell, and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting, and so a kind of unreasonable confusion of mind takes possession of him like some foul darkness.[6]

Failure to dispel this “foul darkness” carries its own perils. In Piers Plowman, Repentance warns Sloth to beware of wanhope, or despair (5.445), which was seen as a precursor to suicide. Even in less extreme cases, acedia, as the enemy of peace, is opposed to both contemplation and productivity. Aquinas described it as the despair that ends in death, but less severely, it may end in blown deadlines and joyless—if not unfinished—writing projects. Walter Benjamin identifies acedia as a ruinous “indolence of the heart” whose sufferers are “apathetic, indecisive, slow.”[7]

What then is the remedy? In Piers Ploman, Sloth is rescued from wanhope by confession, penance, and absolution. An informal survey of fellow graduate students reveals that many if not most of them are helped by prescribed antidepressants. I am fortunate that going for a long run usually dispels my gloom—though in this way I too am filling a prescription, albeit a medieval one. For monks too afflicted by acedia to attend to their reading, the Rule of Benedict recommends physical labor and, in extreme cases, blows to the body. In this way, as Stephen Greenblatt puts it, “the symptoms of psychic pain would be driven out by physical pain.”[8]

Running doesn’t usually feel like flagellation to me, but sustained movement does provide the balancing ora to my daily scholarly labora, granting me a state which is, if not necessarily prayerful, then at least similar to what Coleridge called “reverie,” the state of mind in which one could think, work, create. Whether through spiritual contemplation, a few grains of opium—or, in my case, the lap swims during which I sometimes mentally outline the day’s writing—one achieves a state of heightened attention, creativity, and well-being. To be a “sweaty scholar,” then, is not only to guard against personal demons, but may also embody a practical critique of modern academic culture, in which, as a Chronicle of Higher Education article on post-tenure malaise put it, “[c]oming off as burdened and tense is almost . . . de rigueur.”[9]

So, enough of shame. St. Paul urged, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2.12). That may be good soteriological advice, but I think I prefer to work out my dissertation with perspiration and joy.

Thank you, Mother Advisor. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.

I’ll trouble you no further, and I promise a draft on your desk within the week.

Oh, say, about that penance. How about a ten-mile run in a moisture-wicking hair shirt?

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Footnotes

[1] This is a revised version of a presentation made at a special session on “The Sweaty Scholar” at the 4th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group, University of Toronto, October 2015.

[2] Qtd. in Brian Patrick McGuire, Jean Gerson and the Last Medieval Reformation (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010), 52.

[3] St. Andrew’s Day Sermon, 1552. Hugh Latimer, Sermons and Remains of Hugh Latimer, Sometime Bishop of Worcester, ed. Rev. George Elwes Corrie, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambrdige University Press, 1845), 37.

[4] This well-known quote was in fact merely the invention of screenwriter Colin Welland, according to the non-profit Eric Liddell Center website.

[5] See, most significantly, Thomas Aquinas’s extended discussions of despair and sloth in Qs. 20 and 35, respectively, of the second part of the second part (secunda secunda) of The Summa Theologica. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 3 vols. (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1947).

[6] John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: Newman Press, 2000), 10:2.

[7] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, n.d.), 156.

[8] The Rule of Benedict 48:19-20. Qtd. in Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve (New York: Norton, 2011), 26–27.

[9] David D. Perlmutter, “Avoiding PTDS: Post-Tenure Depression Syndrome,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2, 2015.