The Red Queen

Photo Credit: Venti Views

In Lewis Carroll’s book, Through the Looking Glass, Alice encounters one of the most memorable characters of the books, the Red Queen. The Red Queen is incessantly running but appearing to get nowhere despite her best efforts. Upon inquiring about this peculiar set of circumstances, Alice and the Red Queen have a memorable exchange: 

…in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else- if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.” 

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” 

This concept of running just to stay in place, and sprinting in order to get ahead is a cultural phenomenon common back then and even more common today. The idea of 24/7/365, that is the idea of working every hour, of every day, of every year, and the push to take “no days off” are just some of the ways people boast of their hustle and grind. This is certainly not to say that hustle and grind are bad, but rather that the purpose of the hustle and grind must be to get somewhere meaningful, an extraordinary destination, not simply to show that one is running or moving. In one of his early vlog posts, Casey Neistat illustrates hustle to get ahead in a graphic depiction of the Red Queen principle. In the short video, he filmed himself walking in the reverse direction on a moving walkway in an airport like setting. As he was walking in the reverse direction, whenever he stopped moving he lost ground; simply to remain in a neutral position required him to walk. In order to get ahead, he had to run. 

Reverse walking on a moving walkway, is walking on a treadmill, something that millions of people do every day. This is not to say that running on a treadmill is in any way bad, in fact, it is a healthy and good behavior, but as a path to something greater. However, the activity of running in place can often feel defeating, pointless, demoralizing if not kept the larger picture. In the movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Kim, played by Tina Fey, is attempting to explain why she abruptly left her safe, well-paying job and exchanged everything to be a combat reporter. 

“I was at the gym after work one night….and stationary bike (sic), same bike every day and I noticed this indentation in the carpet. It was like a foot in front of my bike, and I realized it was from where my bike used to be. I have done thousands of miles on this bike, and I have gone backwards. I have literally gone backwards. I just, just wanted to blow everything up.” 

Often there is the perception of running in place, the sensation of a hamster on a wheel. Other affectionate or not so affectionate names by which this phenomenon is referred to include the rat race or keeping up with the Joneses. The feeling that one must run or sprint just to stay in place, like treading water just to stay afloat. As Tina Fey’s character notes, this realization can be deflating causing one to struggle with larger questions of purpose and meaning. The goal is not to simply demonstrate frenetic activity to be noted by others, nor to simply stay in the same place. There is the fear that something will pass one by if they stop running. Whether this something is others, opportunities, time, “life”, or another unspoken goal, the pressure to keep pace on the treadmill can be enormous. 

This realization, the pressure to run on the treadmill, to keep pace with the Red Queen, can cause many different reactions, from the need for radical change or the discovery of a new treadmill to join, dejection resulting in simply giving up to allow the treadmill to have its way, a desire to sprint to gain the applause of others, or a desire to run fast for a short period so perhaps a chance for a break will appear in the future. Many of these miss the point and simply exchange one treadmill for another. Instead, the running itself must be analyzed. The miles on the indoor bike are not a waste as the exercise improves the mind, strengthens the heart, lungs, and legs, boosts the immune system, and provides a chance for reflection. However, when viewed as a transportation device, of course the stationary bike is an utter failure and the hundreds of hours a waste. The act of running, the act of working, must focus not simply on the distance one is covering. Any idiot is able to find something easy to measure and then create an entire belief system around that single erroneous data trend. Far more difficult is the constant assessment and reflection about the true purpose, the greater game that is afoot. Then and only then can one truly pursue the goals that matter. Activity, in whatever shape or form, must be a moving meditation upon one’s place and greater trajectory. Without this intentional focus and direction, one assumes the status quo of joining the Red Queen on the treadmill to nowhere. 

Published by JR Stanley

I am an MD, PhD student, training to be a physician scientist, with a deep interest in science, faith, and living life as an adventure. Join me as I entertain ideas from new findings in science, evolving interpretations of faith, and experience life one day and one adventure at a time.

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