So, this is an odd piece. On a late summer Saturday in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my daughter and her husband did a swim-and-run in a state park. My wife and I watched their kids, three of our six grandchildren. Their swim-and-run was part of a larger Swim/Run/Walk/Kayak and I-don’t-remember-what-else event that went on for the better part of a day. There were more volunteers than you could count and free bagels and coffee.
All of the events unfolded simultaneously—just before the swimmers jumped into the pond, the first of the runners took off—some running five kilometers and others ten. Minutes later, the first walkers were sent on their way. It was all very relaxed and informal—so much so that some of the swimmers wound up swimming quite wide of the designated course as they made their way to the finish line. As the swimmers came out of the water, there were lots of “high-fives” and hugs.
As is typically the case at these events, many of the competitors wore shirts proclaiming their loyalties—to employers, unions, departments of state and local governments (police and firefighters prominent among them), organizations dedicated to finding cures for various illnesses, and more personal causes or connections (like “Friends of Maureen”). Perhaps the most distinctive identifying apparel was the insulated firefighter’s coat worn by a middle-aged woman lieutenant runner from a Massachusetts department. My wife overheard her telling another runner that it was what she had to wear when she took the physical exam to join the department so it was what she wore when she ran the race.
This particular event was a decidedly local affair but that did not mean that there were no participants from across the globe. A young Spanish woman and her male companion asked me to take a picture of them with her phone. I deferred to my wife since my picture-taking skills leave a lot to be desired.
We started out at the swimming event. Surprisingly to me, the first few finishers were women. More surprising still was that one of the top twenty finishers was a girl who looked to be about eleven. She finished minutes before our son-in-law and our daughter, both pretty good. We moved on to the end of the run. A bigger surprise—the same young girl finished close to the top. There were loud cheers and applause. Later on, many people stopped to congratulate her
As I stood there watching the whole affair, I began to appreciate the significance and importance of the connections expressed by the words on the shirts, the hugs and embraces and the cheers by people who did not know those they were cheering for. What we could see was just a surface-level impression of the genuine depth of human relations involving many of those in the park on that Saturday. The whole event was a small example of what a human community could and should look like.
There is more of this than we typically acknowledge and way too much of it goes unrecorded (think, for example, of the enduring value of family reunions over generations). But, alas, that’s not the whole picture. There are many people who have no connections to announce or, perhaps worse still, find connections only among those who share a common addiction to opioids or a gang affiliation that promises little more than the likelihood of a young death. Unfortunately for us, none of them is going to be convinced by words into helpful connections or out of isolation or dangerous relationships.
Many years ago, CLR James wrote about his encounter with a young man who he thought had profoundly wrong-headed understandings about the world. But James wrote: “I wanted to explain to him, but I didn’t. I had had enough of in my life of explaining things to people.”
James understood that what’s needed was more than words!
The photo shows the participants at a 2009 mini-triathlon in Orange, Mass.