Run For It
Conversations with a few friends over the last little while have got me toying with the idea of attempting a half-marathon later this year. I have taken a few halting steps (literally and metaphorically) towards this goal in the last few days, but it remains to be seen if these will be sustained. It’s not hard to jog for a few kilometres in the midst of what has been a glorious Alberta summer, but when the cold and the wind make their inevitable appearance? Well, let’s just say that my resolve will likely face a more formidable test.
Whatever may happen with the half-marathon plans, it’s good to at least think about being more active (I’m actually quite good at the “thinking about it” part…). And as I think about if/how/when more regular exercise might become a part of my life, I find myself paying more attention to the exercise habits of those around me. Exercise is quite cool, I am discovering. You get to wear expensive, form-fitting, high-tech clothing and footwear. You get to be a part of an elite group, that talks about races and diets and performance enhancing gadgetry. And to top it all off, you get to enjoy feeling just a bit superior to the unwashed masses who don’t take care of their bodies like you do.
A harsh evaluation? Probably. But there is little doubt that a form of health-mania has taken over in many parts of the western world. Much of this is good and worthy of affirmation. It’s good to understand our bodies, what is good for us, and to take steps to live healthier lives. It’s good to take preventative steps to prevent disease and decay as we age. It’s good to do things that push ourselves physically in a culture where almost everything is designed around our ease and comfort.
But amidst all of this healthy goodness, I wonder if heath and fitness has become something of an object of worship and devotion in a culture that finds itself increasingly in need of something to worship in the absence of God. Others wonder about this, too, as evidenced in this article by Mark Edmundson over at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Edmundson argues that in the absence of any kind of meaningful horizon toward which to orient ourselves, simply keeping ourselves alive for as long as possible has taken over as the goal of our frenetic physical activity. It’s a provocative article worth reading in its entirety, but a few passages stood out to me:
Health should manifest itself as a means to an end. We want to be healthy so we can get something practical done—or better still, something divine, something celestial. But now, since we do not know what we are doing here, do not know what we want or need, health has become an end in itself. People pursue health for its own sake. Why do you want to live? we ask the compulsive exerciser. The answer is not So that I can finish the work; so that I can make the discovery; so that I can find enduring love. The answer now—implicit, but to me, alas, unmistakable—is that I want to live simply to go on living. With the disappearance of tenable ideals, life, simple life, has become the great goal….
All of the energy that once went into the pursuit of the ideal is now dormant, for almost no one can believe in ideals anymore. A quest for artistic perfection? Absurd. A search for true and absolute knowledge? A joke. A life’s dedication to compassion and lovingkindness? You must be kidding. So what is to be done with the power of human will that might once have sought after these things? It is redirected to more quotidian business. People now pursue a means—staying alive—as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.
Edmundson closes his article by pointing out the double-edged nature of our dilemma. There seem to be two dominant responses in a world where it seems like there is no meaning to be had. One is the exercise/health-mania already alluded to. The other, is an enthusiastic and uncritical embrace of instant gratification. If it feels (or tastes) good, do (or eat) it. All we have is the moment and whatever pleasures can be extracted from it. So eat, drink, and be merry for… well, you know the rest. According to Edmundson, it’s not hard to see the results of this latter approach in a society characterized by addictions to food, entertainment, and pleasure, with all of the attendant physical and behavioural problems this spawns.
So we have addiction to exercise and addiction to cheap and easy pleasure. Two ends on a spectrum of responses to the question of what (if anything) our bodies are for and what we should do with them in a culture devoid of ultimate purpose.
Of course, from a Christian perspective, the most sensible thing to do is to thoughtfully reintroduce a horizon of meaning within which to think about these matters. A robust Christian anthropology can move us beyond the bare pragmatism of exercising just to keep ourselves kicking about the planet for as long as possible, to a place where we can see taking care of our bodies as an act of good stewardship borne out of the conviction that we are accountable to our Maker for what we have been given. This anthropology can also move us beyond greedily hoarding what pleasures come our way to a position of joyful acceptance of God’s gifts in the moderation and gratitude that leads to health.
In both cases, the horizon is the same: Human bodies, like everything else in God’s created world, have a destiny beyond the years that we spend here, and will find their way into the new creation that God has promised to bring about—the new creation that all of our activities here, whether physical, intellectual, spiritual, or relational, are preparing us for, either positively or negatively. It is a good and hopeful horizon, I think—one that can either justify the “epic measures of energy” we are already investing, or motivate us to pick up the pace.