Why I Do This
Finding freedom from the prison of mind.
Realism, in philosophy, the viewpoint which accords to things which are known or perceived an existence or nature which is independent of whether anyone is thinking about or perceiving them.
Idealism, in philosophy, any view that stresses the central role of the ideal or the spiritual in the interpretation of experience. It may hold that the world or reality exists essentially as spirit or consciousness, that abstractions and laws are more fundamental in reality than sensory things, or, at least, that whatever exists is known in dimensions that are chiefly mental—through and as ideas.
— Encyclopedia Britannica
The end of my handlebar caught on a rock last week as I turned a corner. The rock, massive and tan, riven with fissures, caked with dust, just a hardened mass of powdery schist jutting out into the trail waist high (standing on a bike, that is), gave way upon impact; it chipped, flaked, crumbled as I passed by. My bike (and me with it) was pushed outward, away from the rock, upon impact. My body tilted toward the outer edge of the trail, toward the severe drop off that would have sent me falling many feet into the forest below. I could feel the tires shift underneath of me, left leaning to right leaning. There was a moment, an instant, in which my well-being was suspended there on the trail. More movement to my right, any further shift in weight toward the edge of the trail, and I would have fallen. But the rock gave way upon impact; it chipped, flaked, crumbled as I passed by. My bike and I were thrown, knocked off course, but we put up our gloves, absorbed nature’s punch, and went on our way.
I told friends the next day that riding that trail, 1.7 miles of remarkably well-constructed rock chutes, bridges, gardens, and drops on the side of a West Virginia mountain, made me question for a moment the moral goodness of my choice to ride. The margin for error was low, and the consequences of a fall seemed serious enough. There is a metric I use for these kinds of decisions: low risk, high consequence, and I’m good to go. The fact of the matter is that driving a car is a far riskier activity than riding a bike, and the consequences of a misfortune while driving are higher as well. Your average bike ride comes at low risk, and maybe medium consequence. My records tell me that in the last few years I’ve gone on 818 bike rides, and I’ve seriously injured myself just once; nothing a surgery couldn’t fix. Not bad. But sometimes a trail (or a road) presents the kinds of features that increase the risk, and you start to wonder if you made the wrong choice.
These thoughts about risk and consequence are important to me because somewhere on those 1.7 miles of remarkably well-constructed rock chutes, bridges, gardens, and drops on the side of a West Virginia mountain I became certain of my answer to the question: Why do I do this? The risk is there on many rides, and I am not the kind of person who loves to feel unsafe. The consequences are there as well, and I am not the kind of person who thinks that thrill-seeking merits serious injury. And yet, there I am, most weeks, exposing myself to risk and consequence. Why do I do this?
Let me move back in time a few hours, to the morning before I found myself riding a dangerous trail on the side of a West Virginia mountain. That particular morning was like most mornings for me: Mass, prayers, a smoothie, and a long-enough list of thoughts consuming my mind. Thoughts are pernicious, insidious things. Some thoughts are good and necessary and worthy of our mental energies, and yet seize too much control of our inner lives for our own good. Other thoughts are not so meritorious and risk sin and malformations of the will. Some thoughts come from us, interior words that give expression to some feature of our interior life that seeks articulation: an idea, a feeling, an experience, whatever. Other thoughts are like foreign invaders; they arrive from a land of unknown origin and lay siege to our interior lives, threatening to tear down the ramparts and parapets of our self-assurance. Thoughts are pernicious, insidious things.
The morning of my ride, my mind was consumed with several thoughts: Of substantial projects that need attention, of the emails awaiting me in the inbox that is my greatest adversary in life, of my schedule for the days ahead, of a friend’s pursuit of vocation and of the next steps that should be taken, of the state of the Church and the immediate challenges confronting us in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, of how I wouldn’t mind getting a new bike sometime soon, of how I would really like to finish three or four half-completed essays and get those up on the website, of whether or not I would resort to cannibalism to keep myself alive like the characters in the audiobook I was enjoying on my drive to the mountains, of what I might have forgotten to take care of in the parish before leaving the City. These thoughts, and perhaps many others now forgotten (the necessary casualties strewn across the battlefield of an overactive human mind), consumed my interior life on the morning of my ride.
A few hours later, none of those thoughts existed. These thoughts had been vanquished by exposure to reality: rocks, dirt, fallen trees and branches, pockets of bone-dry leaves, ankle-deep streams, upward slopes pitching 30 degrees or more, the heat of the sun and the cold of the west wind, the vertical distances between geometrical planes. After four hours of nature declaring itself to me, forcing me to respond, to fight to stay upright, to keep my balance, hold my course, keep my speed, the thoughts that once consumed my mind had disappeared. These features of reality had claimed a near total victory over the contents of my interior life. I was again, for a few moments at least, a free man.
There is a remarkable value that comes from allowing nature to declare itself to you. The contents of our mental lives, no matter how oriented toward the contents of reality, are not reality. Yet how persistently do our thoughts threaten to trap us within a world of the mind? The life of the mind almost always seeks to become a life of its own, and most of us, at least some of the time, need the gift that comes from reality breaking down the walls of our mental prisons. When I ride a bike, at least on many occasions, nature declares itself to me and for a few glorious moments, I live free from the thoughts that would consume me.
I am always surprised, and delighted, when nature performs her work on me. Lord knows that for each ride I take steps to stay well within the world of the mind: I choose perfect music for the miles ahead, select my snacks and energy supplements, wear clothing intended to mute the brute facts of temperature and wind and water, determine a pace that speaks to my inner ‘vibe’ at the moment I begin pedaling. And yet, no matter how sincere and complete my work of preparation to guard against the vicissitudes of nature, there comes the point on many rides at which I become a victim of nature’s declaration. The music plays, but I no longer hear it; I eat the food, but it has little effect; I am cold, or hot, and wet with or without precipitation; my preference for pace means nothing, as my legs capitulate to the realities of terrain and angles of ascent and descent. Nature, on most hard rides, is the victor; and I am almost always happy to let myself be conquered.
Idealism, so many ways of getting trapped within the world of the mind, is the great enemy of the good life. Nature, when we let her, makes realists of us all.
Five years ago, I would have given a different reason for my riding bikes. I would have told you that I ride bikes because exercise seems important enough, and riding a bike is a good enough way to exercise. Four years ago I would have told you that I ride bikes because of the challenge to defeat personal records and personal friends on different segments of trails and roads; everything had become so competitive for me. Three years ago, I would have told you that I ride bikes for the adrenaline; the intoxicating experience that comes from living on the edge of life, even if just for a few moments. Two years ago, I would have told you that I ride bikes because the exposure to the beauty of the world that comes from riding a bike is pure gift; riding a bike is a revelatory experience. And a year ago, I would have told you that I ride bikes for the sake of relationships; riding bikes is what me and my closest friends do; it is how we spend our time together and the experiences we share are filled with grace and goodness; it where we test the limits of our endurance together, in relationship.
Each of those reasons still exists for me, especially those of exposure to beauty and relationship. There is so much beauty out there in the world, and to share it with those closest to you, my goodness, what a thing that is. But today, my thoughts are turned to nature and its great capacity to level the power of the mind. The truth of the matter is that in riding a bike, I find a perfect metaphor for living a human life well. What is life other than nature declaring itself to us, confronting us with realities both beautiful and painful, sobering and intoxicating? The moment of synthesis, our responding with grace to the jabs and punches of nature, never controlling the world around us (if we’re honest with ourselves) but doing what we can to stay upright and grateful, seeing the radiance of God in the midst of the hardship, there is the reality of human freedom.
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me a question about life, and I gave the following response:
You’re on a mountain bike. Nature is throwing itself at you. But nature doesn’t control you. Keep your balance. Make the right moves. Stick out a foot every now and then. Find the flow. Don’t get so focused on the rock in front of you that you lose sight of the vista, don’t get so caught up in the vista that you hit the rock and go over the bars.
That’s basically my vision of good living.
And that is why, for at least this year, I ride a bike.