I am, by nature, a gregarious extrovert. Except at the gym. There, I keep to myself. Eyes down. Focus within. Conscious breathing. Feel the pain. Let the exhaustion carry you away. I think of it like a religious discipline.
It’s contemplative. Even when I have to negotiate whether a bench or a machine is free or occupied, it’s nonverbal. You point, you raise your eyebrows, you nod or shake your head.
I was startled last week when I raised up from the drinking fountain to find This Guy standing there, looking at me. He was early 40ish. He had warmth in his eyes and a smile on his face. His countenance was engaging me. And all I could do was pant. Suck wind. Reach to the wall for balance. Couldn’t even spare the oxygen to command the muscles in my face to smile back.
Why is this guy grinning at me?
“You are making us older guys look good,” This Guy said.
I feel the compliment. There is nothing ironic about This Guy. He is utterly sincere. He was admiring me. I emphasize this because I want you to know that what I said next was not a “firing back.” My response contained a wry ambivalence, yes, but not an ambivalence toward This Guy.
In truth, I didn’t even see the ambivalence coming. “You are making us older guys look good,” This Guy said. And I said, between gulps of air, “Just wait till you see how I wow ’em in hospice.”
This Guy blinked. Had that look on his face you get when you realize, too late, you might have unwittingly enjoined a crazy person in a conversation. Six o’clock in the morning is way too early for existential humor. What was I thinking?
For the rest of my workout and off and on through the next days, I ponder what had come out of my mouth and why. I don’t feel bitter. I’m no nihilist. Nor am I a cynic. It hit me a couple of days later. This Guy distracted me. Through no fault of his own, This Guy tempted me to take my eyes off the road, metaphorically speaking. My comedic crypticism was for me, not for him. Having afforded myself the three or four seconds to enjoy This Guy’s compliment, my response was a bell, an air horn, a slap to my own face saying “Break’s over, oh mortal man! Pay attention!”
I’m saying that, as a regular here at the gym, whatever relative success or not-success I’m having relative to my gene pool combined with my efforts wrapped in the constraints of my age, it doesn’t change one thing about this poignant reality: Vitality is only mortality biding its time.
Oh, that would have gone over real well with This Guy. Or maybe I should have said, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”
I’m saying I no longer have a dog in the fight of how or whether I make others “look good.”
Or whether I think I look good. I care about how I feel. I covet feeling alive and vital. I enjoy the brink of exhaustion. I desire that my muscles should regularly feel achy in the morning. I sleep better when I exercise. I eat better. I’m way less moody. I exercise because it’s fun and because I like feeling better more than I like feeling worse.
But it’s not utterly mercenary. As I said at the beginning, it’s also part of my spiritual path. And I’m convinced the measure of any authentic spiritual path is the willingness to walk it in “the shadow of death.” By being consciously mortal. I’m not at the gym to put off growing old and dying; I’m at the gym to practice sacrifice and gratitude. Endurance is worship.
There’s a guy at my gym who moves at a glacial pace from machine to machine with a walker and the help of a “little ol’ lady” I assume is his wife. Looking at him, I’d guess somewhere in his 80s. Now that’s an inspiration. Not because of how he looks, nor because doing so will spare him from the day he can’t ever come here again, let alone spare him from dying.
The man inspires me because he’s alive and apparently likes being alive. He’s here saying “thank you” for another day.
I’ll get my walker soon enough. And, barring the proverbial bus, my hospice bed. In the meantime, I’m off to do some cardio. Because I can. For now.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.