ABSOLUTELY FREE

by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC


Nothing can deny you the choice of how to live...and nothing can relieve you of it.

Heidegger on strength training.
The choice is yours.

In a recent video, Rippetoe talked about the depredations of aging and their impact on the athlete. There's no denying that aging joints are creakier, aging muscles are achier, aging tendons heal more slowly. Over the course of a lifetime, scars and injuries and degeneration never decrease...they only accumulate. Vulnerant omnia, ultima necat: Every hour wounds; the last one kills. Well that's a cheery intro, isn't it? All existentialist and gloomy and stuff. There's an awful biological determinism there. There is. But there's also room for choice, what the philosopher--particularly the existentialist philosopher--would call authenticity. At its very core, existentialism is brutally simple. One way to put it is embodied in the famous aphorism "Existence precedes essence." This just means that we begin as raw being, as naked existence...without purpose, without meaning, or at least unsure of purpose and meaning. We, as autonomous agents, have to forge these things for ourselves, in the way we live. So Existentialism gives us one real mandate: we have to choose. If you say you have no choice about how to live, Sartre would accuse you of Bad Faith, Heidegger would bemoan your lack of authenticity, and Nietzsche would call you a pussy. Because we always have a choice. We may not like it, and our options may be bad, but we always have a choice. From Heidegger we get the idea of Geworfenheit, or "Thrown-ness." We're cast into existence. ("Into this world we're thrown, Like a dog without a bone, An actor out on loan...Riders on the storm.") We're born into a certain time in a certain culture to certain parents with certain genetics, speaking a certain language, and so on. And we have to live our lives from there.


This is all part of our "facticity"--where we are, how we feel, how we think, as we enter each new moment of existence. And in each new moment, all of this facticity is the horizon behind us--our past. Because, for Heidegger, Being is Time. We are embodied time. The horizon ahead of us--the future--is a horizon of new circumstances and choices, and it also defines our being. Now, to rather ham-handedly bring all of this noodling to some semblance of relevance, this is about how we age. We are born and wake each new day with our facticity. From our birth we have been shaped by our world, our experiences, and our decisions. Rising this morning, coming into each moment of the new day, we are more or less healthy, more or less happy, more or less mobile, more or less strong. Who and what we are have been shaped by the circumstances of our birth and our genetics, yes. But also by our choices--to quit smoking or not, to take this job or not, to exercise or not, to save or not.

We have no more say in those things that have passed. But we do have a say in how we move into the future horizon, what Heidegger calls our Being-Toward-Death, which is an open acknowledgment that we all end up as corpses. So our physical lives are punctuated at the beginning and end by full stops, thrown-ness and mortality, about which we can do nothing, and our lives in between are constrained by the laws of nature, the Arrow of Time, and the circumstances of our world. That is the structure of our existence, and in that sense it's a closed structure. But it's also open--a scaffolding or rule-structure upon which we hang our decisions and our actions. It's like a haiku or a sonnnet, a poem with explicit and inflexible rules, and a definite beginning and end. The form cannot be changed, but the content is all up to the Poet. That's you. The form constrains what can be done, but it also suggests what can be done. Like the rules of a formal poem or composition, the raw existential truth of getting older is both limiting and liberating, both intimidating and inspiring. Your experiences, your scars, your genetics, your injuries, your past decisions--all of these have an impact on your physical being, which in turn has an impact on who you are, and how you are aging. Those are the constraints of your ongoing life-poem. But it is inauthentic, it is bad faith, to deny that your decisions today can have an impact. A haiku will have 3 lines and seventeen syllables. A sonnet will have 14 lines and be in iambic pentameter. Those are the formal rules. One of the formal rules of your Life-Poem is that if you train your body, it will get stronger. If you improve your diet, you will get healthier. If you build muscle today, you will have more tomorrow. Your life is the result of various inputs--your thrownness, your facticity, the things that happen to you, the circumstances of your world. But your choices, including your bad faith choices not to choose, are all inputs as well, accumulated over a lifetime. Similarly, your body is the result of various inputs--your genetics, your neonatal and childhood nutrition, illnesses, injuries, experiences. But your choices, including your bad faith choices to abdicate any influence on your own physical destiny, are all inputs as well, accumulated over a lifetime. The world is the world, and your facticity is what it is. But you can train for strength and fitness--that is your choice. You can eat better than you did before--that is your choice. You can go to bed at a decent hour--that is your choice. These are all choices to live as fully and as richly and as vibrantly as you can. You are absolutely free to go this way. Nothing in the world can deny you this choice...and nothing can relieve you of it. It is the choice to be an Athlete of Aging...and it's all yours.


Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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