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Frank O’Carroll tells of an athlete who had a run-in with Zeno.
When Gerry refused to leave his fireside chair I was more bewildered than most. An iconic sporting figure in our town, I had seen him run in all weathers and all seasons in his pursuit of that elusive victory in the metropolitan marathon. ‘But what on earth is he doing glued to his chair when he should be out training?’ I pondered. I refused to believe he had thrown in the proverbial towel when his supporters were never more hopeful of him achieving an historic victory.
None of my pleadings, though living next door and knowing each other all our lives, prevailed. Gerry refused to vacate his chair that might as well have been an extension of him, or he of it, each the captive of the other – a bonding that seemed more and more absurd as the two effectively became one. Though I claimed to know Gerry better than most, and would be the first he’d confide in, I was no wiser than anyone. In the meantime, I could only bear with him.
His clubmates must have felt as we all did. I listened to them trying to coax Gerry out of his position: “When are you going to start running again, Gerry? You need to get back into shape.”
His reply, which was as curt as it was enigmatic, silenced them: “What’s the point if I can never overtake the leader?”
Subsequent attempts by others at luring him from his chair were similarly unsuccessful. “And how is the chairman today?” I would overhear the postman inquire when he dropped a letter into Gerry.
“I don’t see you out running. Why not?”
I could see Gerry shaking his head: “If Achilles couldn’t overtake the tortoise, what hope have I of winning the marathon?”
“Ah well, a rest will do you good.”
The postman gave up. We all did, as the days drifted into weeks and the weeks into months and there was still no change in Gerry’s posture and attitude as he approximated to a still life, siamese-twinned with his chair.
Although I accepted that Gerry’s behaviour was off-kilter, I was aware that sudden conversions and radical U-turns were not unusual. It was just the drastic form it took in his case that bothered me as I watched him rooted to his seat, when he would normally be out running after he’d finished work. Incapable of relaxing, he had to be doing something – unlike Moll, his wife, who used to do nothing but relax. Moll’s mother, I gathered, couldn’t rest either, and would wear out a shoe shop as well as Moll’s shoes if Moll hadn’t had the good sense of moving out with Gerry into their own place, and putting her feet up, until Gerry decided to put his up too.
“He just can’t go on like this,” she frequently despaired.
“Give him time,” I advised. Her role was suddenly reversed, having to perform most of his functions for him now that he was stationary. The hitherto corpulent couch potato was on her feet as never before, dressing him and serving him his meals. She had to sponge him down daily, shave him, and tend to his toileting needs. Fearful that he would take a tumble and injure himself, she had to strap him every night to his chair and hope he’d be still alive when she awoke. In fairness, she was playing a blinder, although she was generally perceived to be merely making amends for her years of sloth. To his credit, Gerry had never once run off on her, and for his reward she now ministered to his every need.
“You need to take exercise for your circulation . Even a short walk,” I heard her plead with him.
“Just around the room.”
He shook his head.
“Why not?” she begged, close to tears.
“I might never make it back to the chair.”
I gestured to her to leave it. Though I worried that Gerry’s body was fast-tracking for rigor mortis, I saw no point in pressuring him until he decided to liberate himself from his mindset.
“He’s really making up for all the running he did,” his insurance agent remarked to me the day he advised Gerry to expand his policy, just in case (which in any case Gerry refused). I nodded gravely, alarmed that Gerry’s erstwhile ruddy features were already tawny, and his previously brawny figure scrawny, now that he was having to eat less being on disability benefit. “One thing is for sure, he won’t die on his feet,” the agent chuckled as we parted.
When his clubmates called again they found him as unrelenting as ever. I listened to them pleading with him: “We need you, Gerry. The club needs you. And the youngsters you’re a role model for need you. You’ve gotta get back running.” But I could see his expression hardening. “Tell me, what did running ever do for me?” he rejoined as he rolled up his trousers and pointed to its legacy. “Injuries! That’s my reward. If it weren’t sprained ankles, it was a damaged metatarsal; and if it weren’t knee injuries, it was hamstring injuries; and if not those, it was my Achilles tendon, or hurting hips and torn ligaments. I dread to think what I’ll be like at sixty. And not a penny to show for it!”
“Still, it’s better than becoming diabetic from being overweight,” a clubmate answered.
“Or suffering strokes and heart attacks,” another tried to cheerily convince him.
“Or dying a slow death watching television,” a third put in.
“Naw.” I watched him frown defiantly.
“But that marathon – you have it in you to win it,” they pressed.
He rebuffed their pleas: “Achilles can never overtake the tortoise.”
“Nonsense. Of course he can,” a brash junior clubmate disagreed, though he hadn’t a clue what Gerry was on about; nor did the others neither.
“No way. I’ve worked it out!” Gerry had had a lot of time on his hands for working things out since he had stopped running.
“Go ahead then. Let’s hear your excuse!” the junior cheekily challenged.
I listened with interest to Gerry explaining the proposition that accounted for his loss of interest in competitive running – in fact, in moving at all: “According to the Greek philosopher Zeno, when racing with a tortoise, Achilles the runner must first cover half the distance separating him from the tortoise, then half of that, and then half of that, and so on to infinity. This means he’ll never catch up with the tortoise. Get it?”
“Balderdash! I’m sure there’s a flaw in that thinking” the junior disagreed, but for all his gumption, couldn’t see it. Bamboozled, he preceded his clubmates a tad less gumptuously as they took their leave of their idol, worried his running days might be over.
“I just don’t know what to do with him,” Molly confided in me, “He has me worn out.” I advised her to get out of the house and take exercise. Sensibly, she joined the women’s keep fit club, and could soon be seen power-walking along the river most evenings while Gerry sat cross-legged, yoga-style, on his chair.
Although Moll’s rigorous exercising-cum-dieting did wonders for her figure and put a rosy hue on her hitherto pallid cheeks, Gerry was not tempted to join her. He did, however, remark that she looked sexier since losing weight, even though sex no longer interested him either, as it involved moving. It was the only compliment she had had from him since he took to immobility. Oddly, his prolonged silences occasionally resulted in flashes of profundity. One particular epiphany he launched at Moll and myself still sticks in my memory: “Man was intended for thinking not running! I now realise how much I abused my brain with excessive running and my soul with my obsessive preoccupation with my body when I should have been thinking about life and what it’s all about. Instead, I was running away from it and missing its meaning. Never again!” He resumed his reflective posture with the resolve of a man who had found his true purpose.
“Hear hear, Gerry!” I applauded, relieved that his mind was still active. I could also see that Moll was impressed by the new man who was emerging from the old like a butterfly from its chrysalis. If only he’d get off the damn chair and cross the room to her, take her in his arms and tell her he was well again, she’d kiss the ground he walked on.
At that moment I remembered Gerry’s sceptical clubmate’s dismissal of Zeno’s immobility principle. There had to be someone who could derail it and put Gerry back on track. Mathematically, however, the argument seemed to me to make sense, just as it had seemed to Gerry. “Just give me him another day or two and I may find the answer to his problem,” I pleaded with Moll who was making arrangements to have him dispatched to a mental institution.
“And not one minute more,” she warned. Her energy was spent from looking after him. “And I want you to persuade him to sign a last will and testament form I got for him yesterday. Even with one leg in the grave he refuses to see a solicitor.”
I booted up my laptop, and tried various ancient Greek philosophy sites for any helpful information, but the little I found was unhelpful. The bookshop, I knew, would have no business with something as esoteric as Zeno’s paradox. I dashed to the local library, but was out of luck there too. The librarian suggested, “Try the maths professor up at the Institute.” I made a bee line for him. “Simple,” the professor said. Things that seem complicated to others seem simple to professors. Thrilled, I gave him my full attention. Afterwards I thanked him for his time.
“I may have the answer Moll,” I greeted her when she answered the door to me.
“God be praised! Come in. I can’t wait to hear it.”
“Looks like you misapplied the puzzle of Achilles and the tortoise,” I told Gerry bluntly, “You must have, since you convinced yourself that the slow outruns the fast.”
I could see Moll nodding in agreement.
“But it seems to make sense…” Gerry protested.
“Let’s just say it has no relevance to the races you or anyone else runs.”
“How does it work, then?” Gerry pressed, hungry for clarification.
“The logic of Zeno’s paradox depends upon assuming a continuous, unending subdivision of the world. But the faster overtakes the slower in the real world regardless of Zeno’s argument, so an unending division of reality therefore cannot be the case. Sadly Gerry you got yourself into a philosophical knot and needlessly hung up your running shoes.”
“I see!” His face suddenly lit up. Then grasping my outstretched hand with tears in his eyes, Gerry, who was otherwise about as mobile as a corpse, levered himself off his chair and took his first dramatic step. Whereupon Molly, as if witnessing a miracle, rushed to his aid and enfolded him in her embrace as tears rivered down her cheeks.
“Who tricked you?” I couldn’t resist inquiring when the dust had settled.
“The maths professor at the Institute.”
“You’re joking! How come?”
“When we were at school together, I nicknamed him ‘the tortoise’, he was so slow at running.”
“So, having a score to settle with you, he conned you mathematically up to your eyeballs, and you took to the chair in a fit of despondency.”
“Why did I ever listen to him? Why? Admittedly, I was all mixed up after crashing out of the metropolitan marathon while hot on the heels of the leader and with the tape in sight.”
“Still, you’re all the wiser for it now,” I said. “So welcome back, neighbour, to the real world.” It was my turn to shake his hand.
Happily, Gerry would soon be power-walking with Moll, then subsequently jogging with his clubmates, setting an example for the obese and turning the tables on the cynics – the loafers who had used his set-back to excuse their indifference to sport. And much to his many fans’ delight, he was prepared to give the metropolitan marathon one final shot – this time for a charitable cause. There was more to sport, Gerry had come to realise, than just winning.
© Frank O’Carroll 2014
Frank O’Carroll, a retired teacher and an extramural philosophy student at Trinity College, Dublin, has three books of short stories out.