Last week two things occurred: I read Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougal and I got to dig in my garden for the entire weekend.
McDougal’s book delves into natural movement–its ancient and modern applications. This is an area that I have done extensive research and some bit of training. It is the source of my summer hanging challenge–which I PROMISE I will return to. But before I do, I want to–actually I feel I need to–get a little more philosophical.
You see, I went to visit my mom a couple of weekends ago. She is in the final stages of her life. My trip left me satisfied and yet unsettled. Not because of her dying–she has had a good run and is ready, as ready as anyone can be for their life to end. No, rather I am unsettled by living, having another birthday that officially brings me into my mid-fifties and another year closer to the end of my life expectancy. And reading this book. And digging in the garden.
One of the people McDougal researched was French naval officer George Hebert who witnessed the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique in 1902. He was a part of rescue efforts as people ran into the water to escape the burning ash and then drown as they panicked. Almost the entire population of the capital city died. The “uncivilized” native population however were more fit to survive the disaster–they recognized the signs that lead to the eruption, knew what to do, and were able to stay afloat even when their canoes were burnt by the flying embers. Eventually, Hebert developed a philosophy to fitness: “be fit to be useful” was his credo. These words attached themselves to my heart as I read them. I reread that passage from the book throughout my week as I taught yoga–a practice that could be deemed “UN-useful” if viewed in certain ways. But my purpose was to shed light on the practice that is entirely useful: to really understand what it means to be human, you need to spend time exploring consciousness. And exploring consciousness is the root of a yogic practice.
And then I went out to the garden. And dug in the dirt that wasn’t there fifteen years ago when I first put my trowel in. The place in my yard I chose for a vegetable garden, it turned out, used to be a gravel driveway. No dirt–just rocks and sand–which are not the best medium for growing. So over the years I sifted out rocks, added topsoil, hauled manure, composted and slowly created a garden of 4×4 beds. I was amazed last year when a friend brought over his tiller to help me turn the beds. His machine was too big for the small beds, so he tilled between them. I stood in amazement as I saw dirt between the beds. No gravel anywhere. And this weekend as I hand dug to plant, my trowel sunk into a good 6-8 inches of real, live soil. I had been useful–I made dirt. And I felt very human and very deeply alive.
In my years as a fitness professional, I have seen many strong and sleek bodies. I have seen–and participated–in feats of both physicality and courage. All of it is inspiring, but I’m not so sure about how useful any of these feats are in the long run of life. Especially when our physical efforts result in injury. And what amount of these efforts were made to overcome a sense of humanity rather than participate more deeply within it? This is the source of my unsettling. What does it mean to be useful? and what do we do to become fit so that we can be useful? As I–we–approach the end of our lives, how do we assess our usefulness?
“Exercise with only the intention to carry out a physical gain or to triumph over competitors is brutally egoistic…and brutal egoism just isn’t human,” Hebert is quoted as saying. McDougal goes on, “We like to think of ourselves as masters of our destinies, as lone wolves in a dog-eat-dog world, but guess what: Dogs don’t eat dogs. They work together. As do most species. As do we. We’re the most communicative, helpful species that’s ever existed.”
My dear mother is maybe the least physically fit person I know. But she was very good at being a mom. Even though she might not have been able to save me from drowning in a sea of ash, she saved me from a shadow that hovered over our family life and kept me free and innocent. I’m not sure even what that shadow was, exactly, due to how useful she was in protecting me. The Greek term “hero” means protector. My mom was my hero growing up.
One final quote from McDougal: “Empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, tho more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.” Being useful is sort of a mystery when you are in the midst of a crisis. Most heroes have no idea why or how they did what they did. What matters, what lasts, is how those heroes made other humans feel: recognized and worthy.
Heroes come in many forms–not all are strong or sleek. Awards aren’t all brass and glass–some of them crumble easily and are full of worms. As I grow older I am challenging myself to learn how to strengthen my shoulders not so I can perform a pull up and overcome aging, but so I can continue to reach out to others. I know what it means to get a good hug and thank god, my life is full of them. I want to be useful back. Hug back. Hang out and extend myself to others–whether that is by reaching into an isle of lava or across an aisle of difference. You are very human and hug-worthy.