I think there’s something to be said for personal evolution and giving respect to refining coping mechanisms over time, through experience. Not too long ago, I found myself guns-a-blazing more often than nurturing myself or anyone else. More specifically, coping through an aggressive approach to fitness and logic, and not actually tending to any real root cause.
This morning, I read How Far Fitness Has Fallen by Outside Magazine, and I rolled my eyes. No big, right? Because there is more than enough material out there passing through our news feeds that’s absurd. The difference in this case is that I read the article two years ago when it was initially published and espoused it. I knew when I read the title and brief excerpt that I had probably read this before, and when I confirmed that, I skimmed it again remembering that I had liked it, originally. I was taken aback when I realized with how much I disagreed, and I can only reconcile the disparity between two responses with a change in how I cope with life.
Two years ago, I was dealing with the final days of my marriage. With three children 5 and under, a sinking feeling that this was not reparable, and a truckload of self-esteem issues, I was spending two or more hours a day, six days a week, working out.
Working out hard.
I enjoyed the physical success I was achieving, and between the validation of physical strength and the good endorphins, I was keeping things afloat. Articles like the one above that promote serious and dedicated training through comparison of modern day humans with somewhat legendary strength of nomadic or warrior humans were encouraging to me. And while I have always – and still do- believe in the pursuit of evolving into woman as she is meant to be (with my own personal spice, since we are all uniquely crafted), at that time, I needed a tangible butterfly to chase that folded some aspect of my current life conveniently into its philosophy. Fitness to make me a better, more valuable human? Yes. Give me alls dat.
And so I ran Spartan races and completed the daily Spartan workouts that came via email. I ran Tough Mudders, Barbarian Challenges, completed GORUCK events weighted as heavily as male participants, amassed my own personal arsenal of tires and ropes and kettle bells with which I could complete grueling, possibly unnecessary workouts. Those things were mine, something I could have to myself and time I could invest in a mission statement I could get behind. Even now, the feeling I got during some of those workouts haunts me- it was so good.
I was doing these things on weekends, during nap time or late at night, pretty much any time my children were safely stowed away. When they were awake, I was everything. Mom, teacher, referee, cook, nurse, maid- you name it. Given how often I was left alone to manage the household, it couldn’t be about me when another member of my nuclear family was conscious. I didn’t resent that, but that doesn’t change the fact that I often didn’t feel like a real person when given over to service for most of the day, every day. With my most important relationship with another adult rapidly coming to a close, I held my breath and my tongue until I could reach one of these golden time frames and train. I was building a quality of usefulness and worth. I was certainly going to be someone worth having around after all of this, given how very good I was becoming at being more “human.” I would be indispensable when shit hit the fan.
Now, a valid counterpoint is that I could have chosen a worse coping mechanism. As I stated before, I really don’t drink much, but I can see how someone could go down that road under so much stress. I wasn’t partying, abdicating my roles at home. No gambling or online shopping. And I looked good for a mother of three young children. Healthy, generally, and strong as an ox. I had a medically necessary hysterectomy, then completed a guest WOD at a local Crossfit box six weeks later that involved lifting concrete stones over my head, still making it home in time to put the rest of the chili away and make my kindergartner’s lunch for school.
Also, the article does make points I agree with outside of any coping period. Humans today have so many more health issues because of a lack of movement. We’re not physiologically designed to be still as often as we are, and I’m sure there’s more than a kajillion (really technical term) articles out there about how today’s diet is actually killing us. Further, in the event that the grid goes down/zombie apocalypse/hostile government take over, the vast majority of society does not know basic survival techniques necessary to live through flight. We lack the endurance necessary to move with a purpose for long periods of time, whether that’s in pursuit of game (how many people keep up with things like rut, duck migration patterns, fish hatcheries or migrations…) or grain (what grows where and why?), or to address or flee a threat (animal aggression behaviors or triggers, anyone?). We cannot provide for ourselves, and even though we’re more “connected” than ever through social media and flat out lurking, we’re more incapable at real human interactions than we’ve ever been. Some know some, but how many of us are well-rounded? And of that group of well-rounded and knowledgeable folk, how many are teaching? How many are listening? And when it goes down for real, will we know how to find them and respect them?
Anthropologists describe humans as communal (thriving best in groups, i.e. we need each other), however our higher state of self awareness combats our instinctual state, which, in my opinion, contributes to the rise and fall of societies over time. We survive best when cooperative, but we’re still out for ourselves and the continuation of our own genes thanks to some unconscious biological cues (not to mention psychological traits that make some folks more introverted while others gain energy from community). This means that, similar to the natural disasters we have seen before, our reliance on delegation, economic disparity/ability to obtain necessities to life, and inability to think beyond ourselves or those for which we feel responsible will likely see to the break down of societal groups and the rise of violence if we aren’t mindful.
It would appear that earlier versions of ourselves were better at making life happen, as evidence by the flourish of man in the last couple hundred years. Right?
But. Articles like this one above get us so riled up over these points that they forget about the counterpoints that indicate positive progress in humanity, even away from “the old ways,” that encompasses the other part of being human- that whole psychological/emotional part. Yes, our ancestors could carry heavier burdens for longer periods of time, and their physical structures echoed what the physical requirements of their existence were. They also had shorter life spans (dying from childbirth, dysentery, bacterial infections, simple injuries, malnutrition, warring communities, and physical fatigue of the body- thicker bones and all), different familial structures and roles, and a different set of necessary resources.
It’s super cool, bro, that you just wrestled that mountain lion with your bare hands and carried the carcass, your tools, and supplies back over a great distance. But the stress fracture or broken bone you just suffered in the process because your hunting partner was killed afterward protecting that carcass from a neighboring, also hungry, tribe (who is suffering because you have both tracked food into this area and depleted it for the season) is going to inhibit your usefulness and quality of life over time, and the frost bite on your feet has just killed necessary tissues while you were trying to get back. Your buddy’s wife just lost a baby to a preventable disease and nearly bled out in the delivery process, has fallen into a depressive state, and can hardly operate in the fields during harvest time.
You see where I’m going with this. Not all things modern and convenient are the devil or less “legit.”
We’ll accept the facts we find that confirm where we are and what we believe or need to believe, and we can concoct some pretty legit-sounding arguments based upon them. So when I first read the article, and I needed that level of fitness and the belief that I was becoming stronger to make it through the day, I jumped on that train. MORE miles. MORE weight. Sacrifice a little extra sleep for the satisfaction of physical achievement.Stronger, faster. I was a better me and more worthwhile than the simple housewife I appeared to be because I was striving toward a legendary status from a time where people had their shit together. In theory. And selectively ignoring all the other historical evidence of life at that time.
Fast forward two years, and I’m grinding out each day working nine hours, then managing the house and the children. Up at 5:30am for yoga, out the door for school at 6:45, at my office by 7:45, hard HIIT circuit in the gym over lunch at noon, pick up the kids by 5:30pm, then dinner, check homework, prepare for tomorrow, try to catch up with them and the mountain of laundry I try to pretend is not consistently taking up an entire couch in my living room. By the time they’ve gone to bed (I mean, really gone to bed, not becoming philosophers who are thirsty and in need of several hugs), the idea of running several miles before completing a forty-five minute strength circuit that concludes with several more miles is not only painful, but also not conducive to being my best physically or mentally in the morning when it all starts over.
And I struggle with that. Not just because I know I’m softer and slightly rounder than I previously was, but because I got stuck on that benchmark. If I’m going to be my best self, doesn’t that imply that I’m my best self physically as well? I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I cannot do the sames things I was doing when I had the time to train. If I sacrifice time I now need to catch up on the house stuff I used to be able to do as a stay-at-home mom during what are now my working hours, and I put in that effort physically, I am swamped with the things that pile up later. Then I’m stressed out and exhausted from trying to work it in and around everything else. Then I’m a grumpy mom to the children who desperately need me to be there for them and interact with them now that their dad is no longer part of our household. And as they age and are capable of more information and skill sets, who’s going to teach them if Mom’s occupied trying to keep up a significant standard?
That comparison, that brutal expectation, is unrealistic. That cannot possibly mean that I’m a weaker, less valuable human that doesn’t measure up to the standards of old. The communities of those humans, the requirements of their lives, allowed for and cultivated such physical standards.
Mine definitely does not, regardless of the justifiable importance of physical capability and the questionable state of human interaction now.
Further, when I do work in a few of those workouts through the week, what once left me as confident, peaceful, and reassured makes me feel frantic, angry, and anxious. I’m still moving the same (in some cases more) weight with the same clean movements, even if the reps are fewer or slower, and the mileage capped. It’s not that I doubt my ability to work up and through these benchmarks with time investment. I built myself without a present coach or gym community based on my own sense of accountability and dedication. I’m not frightened by the workload, and while I’m grinding through things, I don’t lose my mental toughness. Even in the frustration of knowing that I could previously complete the same course faster, my performance is not affected. What brought me worth and fulfillment previously now rattles the worth and fulfillment I have since found in other aspects of my humanity. The motivation and belief in the tenants of this “your ancestors are laughing at your fitness” faith is gone.
Life is more than that.
I still believe that it is incumbent upon every human to know how to be truly human- for this post’s purpose, that means, in part, understanding how to survive in a basic sense and being physically capable of doing it. Health and fitness are not equivalent to looking like Instagram models or performing like Rich Froning in box competitions, though. It means practical applications for tasks necessary to man, which I think opens the door to more fun things (try through hiking, kayaking a river, taking a survival class, learning to hunt and track, repel, so on and so forth with physical activities that serve a purpose), utilizing what we learned from those earlier times and what we know now as an advanced society.
Reading the signs of the times, I think it’s important to take such physical applications and investments from mere hobbies to concerted efforts that supplement a regular fitness regimen, but without this aggressive comparison we see so often across fitness approaches today. Why be narrow-minded and stressed out meeting these various nebulous standards set by different communities that advertise as being the most efficient at making you the best physical you? Why not mix some of all the many ways to strengthen the body with practical physical skills while addressing what being human has evolved into today?
Being human also requires respect and accommodations for the other things that make us successful as a species. We must make the time to practice old school interpersonal skills, bartering, and community aid. We must tend to the rearing of children- our own and others that will be peers to our own- passing on what information we have gained (such as medical or ecological information) so that we are more than surviving harsh realities when reality is less harsh. These echo some of previous civilizations, to be sure, although the scale is much larger and complex than it was for them. Also, we must tend to ourselves, because the reality of human life now encompasses so much more than it did for our ancestors, for better or worse. The burden of knowledge that now dictates life truly is more than hunting and gathering and trading societies, as humanity and social structures have changed and our intellectual capacities are far greater.
So when I untangle fact from fiction, what was and what might be, what should be done and what can be done, I arrive, finally, at this point. Some truths hold self-evident, as with the necessity of health, fitness, and survivalism. Those things will always be helpful. But how we arrive at these point and what our motivation is is also very important. The experience I had opened my eyes to a wealth of other knowledge that is important, but it also led me to fueling a confirmation bias. That confirmation bias allowed me to be willfully ignorant/purposefully dismissive of counter points that have since allowed to be a better version of myself as a whole person in the present age- you know, the same one my children are in. That coping mechanism and mental pathway I built so rigidly led to an unnecessary mental flogging when my needs and environment changed.
Examine, address, and refine the way in which you approach these changing seasons of your lives, folks. Evolution, literally and figuratively, is a refining process that involves coping through the fire with which your metal is tested, being folded back on to yourself, then pounded out again and shaped for a more capable tool.