Working Out with Fear and Trembling

on July 5, 2013


Awhile back, Ryan Adams wrote on his blog Summa about the current obsession with health and fitness borne out of an attempt to deny our inevitable deaths. His criticism can be summarized as follows: Caring about health and fitness causes us to forget that we will die someday. If you forget that you will die, your life cannot be said to have a “destiny,” which he defines as synonymous with a good life or purposeful life. He writes:

“I refer the ability to look back on your life, in the moment of your last breath, and say “Damn, I did good.”  Destiny need not be something public, it could be something completely personal and private.  It also need not be something drastic: saving the world, defeating a villain, etc, but could instead be something totally commonplace, raising good kids, loving your spouse.  Regardless of what it is, it should make your life a story worth telling.”

Since it would be bad if you did not live this kind of life, caring about your health and inner workings must be bad too.

Of course, the acceptance of our inevitable death is necessary for any serious person. To pretend that one will not die is to live in an illusion. But by focusing entirely on death, Adams begins to turn it, like so many Gnostics and stoic pagans before him, into a positive good.  He agrees with Epictetus that we are nothing more than “a little soul carrying a corpse.”  In other words, we should act like we are already dead. Anything that breaks the “delusion” of life is good.

If Adams really means that focusing on our slackening skin and infirmity is necessary to secure our destiny, it follows from this that anything I do to remind myself of death is what I ought to seek after.  Perhaps I should chain smoke to further make myself aware that I am just a bag of water as I go up the stairs? Gorge myself to obesity so that I really feel the reaper breathing down my neck? Play in traffic? If it forces me to realize I will die, why not? By Adams’ logic, doing anything of these things would make my life better.

We should work out and take care of our bodies for the exact same reason Adams seems adverse to it: one should work out in order to live a serious life. Why does fitness make for a serious life? Because it is challenging.

It is hard to improve a mile run time, to add weight to your deadlift, or to increase your number of pull ups. These require effort, patience, fortitude, and willpower. They require coming back many times a week, despite coming up against our own limitations. To work out is to put oneself to the test, it is to not be content to be one of those “timid souls that know neither victory nor defeat” as Theodore Roosevelt said.

Adams’ claim is that if I work out or take measures to improve my health, I’m running away from the fact I will die someday. However, it is precisely because I wish to get over my fear of death that I work out. Every time I work out, I am pushing myself past my desire to be comfortable and preserve myself. It is by will and a quick prayer that I’m able to push out one more set of squats when my body is screaming for me to stop and preserve my life.

To overcome one’s desire for self-preservation for the sake of something good is the mark of a serious life. This also happens to be Aristotle’s definition of courage: to endure pain, injury and death because it is beautiful and to do otherwise would be shameful (Nichomachean Ethics 1117b7-10). If anything sets apart a destined life from a middling one, it is this kind of courage. The common ingredient to a serious life,whether it be a soldier dying for his country, a father raising his child, or doing one more push up, is courage. In all those instances, pain and inconvenience is ignored for the sake of something beautiful. Jesus Christ also said that the one who lays down his life is the one that receives it back (Matthew 16:25). It is the man who sacrifices and casts aside comfort who can be said to have a lived a “destined” and serious life.

Also, because human beings are a chimera of soul and body, any work we do in one sphere of our person will aid the other. Human beings are not compartmentalized; there is not one part of our life that doesn’t affect the others to some degree. Making myself do something I don’t always feel like doing in a work out setting will also help me when I don’t feel like being particularly virtuous.  If I am lazy and slothful in regards to my health and body, I’m liable to be lazy in my spiritual life as well.

As for the thought experiment at the end of Adams’ piece, though I love pondering the immortality of the crab, I’ve got gains to make.

  1. Comment by ramonestevez83 on July 6, 2013 at 8:54 am

    “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8).

    I see “Christian gym rats” as being an oxymoron.

  2. Comment by jeffreywalton on July 7, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Ramon, do you even lift bro? Run the race to obtain the prize!

  3. Comment by gregpaley on July 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    Paul often used figures of speech called “metaphors.”

  4. Comment by Samantha on August 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Ever seen a Christian at the gym reading Kierkegaard while walking on the treadmill? Being a “gym rat” does not necessitate a disordered love of health and fitness. There’s nothing wrong with working out your mind and body simultaneously.

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