What Bare Feet Mean to Me: Convention versus Sense
I like barefoot running because it feels good, offers a rich sensory experience and makes me feel more connected with the world outside of myself.
Though it seems strange to us “moderns”, in the grand scheme of things, going barefoot is far from strange. In fact, it is one of the most natural things in the world. Wearing shoes is the aberration. Most people on the planet go about their lives in bare feet. Virtually all of our ancestors went barefoot (except for those living in conditions humans aren’t well adapted to, such as ice, fire and civilization).
Think about it – you, me, most of us, ran around barefoot as children without mishap (usually) and as adults we still like to take our shoes off whenever we get the chance: on the beach, on the grass, on a thick carpet. Indeed, going around barefoot can be one of the great pleasures of life. And, unlike many other great pleasures in life, our society does not explicitly prohibit it in public!
Significantly, it's a way of experiencing the world directly, without aids or censorship. It's not always enjoyable or pleasurable, sometimes it can be downright unpleasant on certain stretches of ground, but it's always a rich and fulfilling experience, a feast for the senses.
There’s something quietly engaging about it too. It's a “Silent Sport”, a “Discipline of Attunement”, wherein you can't just bull your way through but need to prepare, respectfully learn about your environment – and yourself – and pay attention to your surroundings every step of the way. It’s a very rich experience.
On the other hand (or “foot”?), our upbringing contains all kinds of questionable assumptions that lead us to regard a barefoot adult with either caution or curiosity (unless it’s at one of the aforementioned “sanctioned” venues!) Now, why is that? There’s nothing inherently wrong or even particularly unsafe (more on that later) about barefootedness, yet going unshod seems strange in our culture, doesn’t it? It flies in the face of convention – and conventional wisdom. Well maybe it’s okay for the Kenyans, we say, but not for us citified Westerners. Anyway, isn’t it dangerous? Dirty? Damaging to the feet? Then again, it is true that the Kenyans do it and their champion runner, Abebe Bekila, won the gold medal for the 1960 Olympic marathon, barefoot.
It’s also noteworthy that only a small percent of the barefoot population experience any of the panoply of foot problems that 85% of us well-heeled Westerners do (can you say, “Dr. Scholls”?!) Even in this down economy, the Doctor's business hums along. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmmmmm ...
And yet even I, a great proponent of bare feet, often wear shoes or at least sandals. Sometimes, it’s more practical to just wear shoes.
There's a paradox! Two apparent truths that seem to contradict each other. But that's OK. To me, contradictions are an invitation for further exploration. Contradictions shake up the brain cells, beg all kinds of new questions: Why do any of us do the things we do? Is the conventional way always the best way? When is the conventional way preferable? Where is the threshold where we give up doing what makes good sense and give in to convention – because we can’t tolerate feeling “odd”? How free are we really? Like John Kennedy said, “Some people ask ‘why’; I ask ‘why not?’”. Well, sometimes there's a good reason why – and sometimes not.