The daily grind of life can often feel like we are being held under water, left to drown. The modern world spins faster. We constantly compare ourselves to every other being on the planet in terms of achievements. Am I thin enough? Am I successful enough? Have I been more adventurous? The list of comparisons is infinite, and the result is that even when we achieve a high standard in one area there are other infinite areas to compare. Were the Internet not such an endless resource for learning and expression, then I would exile it from my own life just like I did with television a decade ago.
My own journey has taken me to distant lands, through emotional wars in the darkest of places and past challenges demanding repeated failures before even understanding what success might be. Like Ulysses, at the end of his Odyssey, I find myself in a pretty good place with more good than bad on any given day. The little challenges of my job, of paying the bills on time, of planning a vacation or even of taking care of the people I love: these challenges never go away unless I lose what I have gained through negligence and the onslaught of time. The little challenges take effort, but it is reasonable effort.
The theme of this particular blog is the question what can be done with what remains after the 8 to 5 job, the commute, cleaning up the house and feeding two humans and three dogs? The remains are what a few brave people try to carve something meaningful from; other people plug themselves into television, games, fast food, alcohol and drugs to avoid the idea that there might be more for them to do beyond paying the rent.
I ascribe to Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of a strenuous life, a life with rigour and vigour to improve ourselves on a daily basis through thoughtful effort. I want to squeeze the most I can from my time on Earth, and I doubt that I will feel like watching every episode of Game of Thrones twice will feel worth it upon my deathbed. No, I want to learn. I want to experience. I want to push just a little harder in each part of my life even if no one else cares or notices what I am doing, because people never notice anyway.
For the past two days I have been down with a stomach virus. Being sick is never nice, but there is a difference between being diseased with sickness and having a tummy rumbling and gurgling like Vesuvius. I feel healthy enough to smile at the last time I felt this awful (on the back of camel in the Saharan Desert before projectile vomiting and hallucinating on a mattress for what I call “the night of a thousand dreams”). This will pass, whereas cancer, blindness, Ebola and HIV might not. But still I aim to improve I any little way I can. I read from Appolonius of Rhodes’ The Voyage of Argo, I watch jiu-jitsu videos to better understand techniques, and I rest in ways that I cannot afford when I am fully healthy. I will avoid the NyQuil and accept my fate until my body heals itself, as my bed is warm and the bathroom is close.
A strenuous life has challenged me to learning to play claw hammer banjo, learning how to build with basic woodworking hand tools, to seek a change in my lifestyle by seeking support from a chiropractor to improve posture and back pain, to begin a weightlifting program to become stronger than I thought possible and to pursue training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu twice a week. I feel richer for my pursuits, even if no one else sees my efforts as making sense. Certainly, I should just accept working on one area and be happy with that. Perhaps none of these efforts will make me rich, will make me famous nor will I win any awards; I simply pursue them because they make me a better, stronger and more interesting person even if no one else notices.
In the past my efforts focused on professional photography, travel, cooking and playing bass guitar. While I no longer pursue these areas with the same vigour, I can still perform at a high level in any of these areas when the moment calls for it. I will never begrudge spending 8 years learning how to take professional photographs or the lifetime spent learning how to make a satisfying dinner with whatever ingredients lay before me in a cupboard. No, but I might regret not doubling down on repairing and securing my health if I were to find myself with chronic back pain, limited mobility and heavily overweight. Time to work on health cannot be wasted, unless health is defined by how thin, beautiful, fragile and fashionable exercise can make me. No thank you. I want to be strong, mobile and pain-free for as long my time that remains.
Perhaps lying in bed has left me to ramble this morning, but this loop came from my past week at jiu-jitsu class. It was rough. On Wednesday I was gasping for air, I felt bloated, my technique was reproachable and everyone else in class was on another level. Discouraged and pathetic was how I felt for all seven days, but then I had to acknowledge that I did not need to compare myself to my classmates, but rather to all of the people not in class. I had to remember how hard it is to even go to class and stick with it for an hour. I had to accept that I was present to become better versus be the best. Let that be a mantra for your hardest week ahead: I shall become better and not worry about being the best…today.