By Andrea Zuchora
“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race; it’s to test the limits of the human heart.”
–Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track and field coach (1948-1972), co-founder of Nike, Inc.
It might be a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, but as a runner, this quote from Bowerman rings especially true for me. One of my favorite things about running is the discovery of what my body can accomplish; so far, I’ve run three half marathons and a myriad of shorter distances, from 5ks to 10ks. Personally, running is as much a mental exercise or pursuit as it is a physical one. I often find that the clarity of mind produced during a run has an incredible ability to dispel the haze surrounding problems in my life, and I’m able to see different solutions.
I started running my last year of high school, and it was this activity that kept me feeling most like myself as I transitioned to college. It was a rocky transition, mainly because of my decision at my academic orientation program to abandon the pre-veterinary track on which I applied, leaving me as a reassuring “undecided” major (sarcasm intended). I found my niche in an unlikely place: in the pages of a blind man’s famous work.
In my second semester, I enrolled in a 300 level English class on a whim, my first exposure to a college English course. English classes had always been my favorite in high school, and I was desperate for something familiar as I floundered for a sense of purpose, a tangible major to guide my collegiate career. Looking back, I don’t know what insanity prompted me to take “Studies in Medieval/Early Modern Literature,” but I’m forever grateful that I did. The entire second half of the course focused on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and I found inspiration and purpose through a man’s determination to tell stories.
For those unfamiliar, Paradise Lost tells the Biblical story of the fall of man in the garden of Eden, mostly from Satan’s point of view: the story chronicles Satan’s own fall from heaven, and then describes his temptation of Adam and Eve with the forbidden fruit. Milton stated early in the novel that his purpose was to “justify the ways of God to man,” although it has been argued that the poem also reflects Milton’s ultimate optimism in human potential. Indeed, the creation of the 12 book, 10,000+ line epic poem is itself an astonishing feat. Milton was blind at the time that he composed Paradise Lost, and dictated it in its entirety to his daughters to publish. If that doesn’t demonstrate the literary height of human potential, I don’t know what does.
Because I am a glutton for punishment, I also signed up to do an Honors Option for the aforementioned class. There were only three other students to sign up with me (English classes are small and cozy by nature), so our professor had us meet him at Wanderer’s Teahouse on Grand River to discuss our extra assigned reading and how our final project would be affected by doing an Honors Option. It was that afternoon–sitting with three other passionate English majors, our quirky professor, a steaming kettle of tea, and black coffee, chatting about Samson Agonistes alongside electric guitars–that inspired me to declare my major as English, and it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made.
While our main focus was on Paradise Lost within that class, we inevitably discussed other aspects of Milton’s life, including his other works. Milton wasn’t just inspirational because of Paradise Lost, but also because of the beauty of his regular poetry. One of his sonnets, Methought I saw my late espoused saint, I find particularly haunting. Milton makes multiple allusions to sight, even though he himself was blind. The poem touches on the concept of predeterminism: as humans themselves couldn’t know if they were predestined to be saved or damned, he suggests that as a blind man, he could see something that sighted people could not. His description of his wife (the “late espoused saint”) gives her an unearthly aura. Milton writes that her “love, sweetness, goodness” shone “in her person,” guaranteeing “full sight of her in Heaven without restraint.” I took this to mean that he could see that she was predestined to be saved, as though his lack of earthly vision granted him access to the light of heaven in others. One of my favorite things about the sonnet is the last couplet, in which he writes:
“But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
To me, this is such a powerful declaration of love and longing for his lost wife–he misses her so terribly, so acutely, that thinking of her gives him back the power of sight, even if only in his dreams. The last clause, in particular, resonated with me: the juxtaposition of what day would mean to sighted people with the eternal night that Milton resides in. It’s part of what makes him so inspirational to me, and why I fell in love with studying literature.
Milton opened my eyes to the tenacity of the human spirit, the limits of the literal and metaphorical human heart that I strive to test every time I lace up my running shoes.
Andrea Zuchora is a recent graduate of Michigan State University. She double majored in English and Psychology while within the Honors College, and is currently a guest on the Exceptions Editorial Board while applying for Neuropsychology graduate programs. She is fascinated by the brain and perception, leading her to her involvement with Exceptions, where she combines her passion for reading and writing with investigating different perspectives.