The divisions in this country remain profound as we exit this most contentious election season with a new president-elect. Yet despite those divisions America remains what it has always been, a unique patchwork society quilted of many colors sewn together with a common thread – the rule of law and an originating declaration espousing the equality of all.
Though it is a patchwork that is in constant need of mending, and it’s originating declaration in need of expanding, it has survived for 240 years along an arc of inclusion, which is no mean feat. We can see how difficult this quilting truly is when we look to the European Union’s current attempt.
There, a thousand years of national divisions defined by blood, religion, and wars have hardened hearts and released spasms of revanchist pride (see the Brexit vote in U.K.) It is a difficult history to surmount, much less in a single generation during which tumult and dislocation loosed by ongoing wars in the Middle East is a primary feature.
There is much in the world that is conspiring to separate us, while very few things find universal appeal. Even a mother’s hope for her child is defined differently in different places. And the Olympic Games, an institution born to unite, has been shadowed by corruption, cynicism, and a growing allegiance to fortune rather than fair play.
In any open society elections expose fault lines and divisions as new ideas are offered and debated while old ways are challenged. In that contested environment camps pitch and feelings get hurt. Yet notwithstanding those divisions, there still exists in most people a desire for empathy and understanding.
One place these universal feelings are being expressed most profoundly are at road races, both in the U. S. and abroad.
Every weekend that sense of common purpose goes on display at large marathon gatherings and small, shorter contests, too. And in those gatherings we bear witness to that which binds rather than that which separates.
It really is quite remarkable. The simple act of sweating together toward a common goal seems to build a community that washes away lines of division other than speed.
It is an enterprise that reorients each participant toward an elemental self in an investigation and excavation of one’s core attributes.
At the recent TCS New York City Marathon 52,000 people lined up along the span of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge linking Staten Island with Brooklyn. Runners from 125 nations and 50 states were represented. Yet other than a flag insignia here or there, from their bearing, dress, and demeanor one could not identify the Christian from the Jew, the Muslim or the Republican from the Democrat or independent from the socialist. Those other defining characteristics had been subsumed by the effort required for the journey ahead, a journey that necessitated a stripped down physicality and focused psychology to complete.
And along that serpentine route through the patchwork of New York’s own five boroughs the community of fellow runners found support and strength in the company of others, others that in different circumstances and in different dress they might have felt antipathy for, but in this circumstance and dress held only goodwill toward.
Are such gatherings just outliers, or is there a greater lesson to be learned?