by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC
The Athlete of Aging has resolved to burn more brightly and be more alive—socially, spiritually, mentally, and physically—in this world.
As Athletes of Aging we are, in essence, like all other beings. We are embodied time. Time is a part of our existential structure. To hear some tell it, time is our existential structure. Each of us is a kind of clock, ticking from past to future.
Or rather more like a burning candle. A candle, after all, is a kind of clock. Candle-clocks are in fact a thing, or were, and this seems perfectly natural. A candle burns its fuel, wax and wick, but it also burns time. It has burned, it is burning, and it will burn for some finite interval. The past has burned away, and the future remains to be burned. Burning, like being, happens now.
I’ll press the analogy: as embodied time, we are more explicitly like the candle than the clock, because we illuminate the world with our burning—with our being. The universe is vast, dark, cold, and unknown, except where we shine. Our shining being reveals the world.
More to this: your burning/being illuminates a world that only you can reveal, a world that would, quite regrettably I’ll daresay, never come to light without you. Your world. Each of us is like a candle lit in the darkness, in this corner or that of a great dark city with an infinite number of rooms and roads and sights unseen but for our brightening.
The brightness of our burning is the brightness of our being, and the domain that we illuminate is the extent of the world we reveal and the horizon of our possibilities. Unlike the candle-clock, none of us can know how long the wick will burn, and none of us chooses which dark territories of the cosmos, which times and spaces we may illuminate.
But we can, to at least some degree, choose how brightly to burn, and so how much of our world to reveal, and thus the potentials and possibilities available to us and to others.
How can we burn more brightly? This is to ask how we can be more alive. Unlike the perennial immortal adolescent, indestructible, with infinite possibilities, the authentic Athlete of Aging knows he is a candle-clock, burning into a finite future. What comes after the wick has burned through? That is what Shakespeare called the Undiscovered Country, and I don’t know any more than he did. Perhaps nothing, perhaps something else, but certainly no more burning, no more being, in this world. The Athlete of Aging has resolved to burn more brightly and be more alive—socially, spiritually, mentally, and physically—in this world.
Notwithstanding any misapprehensions that may arise from the tenor of this essay, I would never presume to offer spiritual advice, or even opinions. But a candle? That is a physical object, burning physical fuels in a chemical process that releases useful energy, just as the Athlete is a physical system, literally subsisting on combustion in an almost identical if more regulated chemical process that powers all the creations of man.
And that is my wheelhouse.
Yes, we can choose how brightly to burn, how deeply to be, and how widely to extend our light to the world and to others. And it starts with the wax, the wick, the oxygen, and where we choose to burn within the constraints of our liberty to so choose. That is the physical, our bodies, the foundation. How fully alive can we be if we allow our flame to sputter and wane prematurely by failing to attend to our physical being? Who has not seen this dying of the light of another? Whatever its psychological and social dimensions, this waning always—always—comes with a withdrawal from the physical, a relinquishing of the body, a surrender to gravity and inactivity.
We all see it every day. The sedentary life, with its weakness and frailty and the Sick Aging Phenotype, does not illuminate a realm of possibilities. Sedentary life is a dimming and sputtering of the light, a contraction of horizons, the closing of doors, the steady eradication of possibilities, and the shrinking of an entire world. A world that only one person could ever illuminate, even if only for a while, dwindles away into darkness long before its time. To my mind, that is a tragedy of cosmic proportions.
As a physician and a coach and your fellow clock-candle, I believe with all that I am that strength and health are about more than just physical performance, the ability to lift so much weight or jump so high or move with some particular grace or power. That is all good, without question, but it is only the foundation. The trick, it seems, is to get people to recognize that it’s the foundation. In Western Civilization, we have a long history of viewing the physical as subordinate to the mental, spiritual, and social realms.
But I think that is an error. In this world, for the time we have, we must, as bodily entities, burn, consuming fuel and oxygen to generate warmth and light, to illuminate as much of our world as we can. All the books we may read, crops we may sow, places we may visit, friends we may make, songs we may sing, and grandchildren we may teach require us to be in this world as physical beings, burning bright.
To put it rather more plainly, without health and strength and vigor those things will not happen. They may not even be contemplated. Those books and friends and grandchildren will be beyond the horizon of possibilities revealed by the sputtering flame.
My job as I see it is to help you, my athletes, burn more brightly, by making you stronger, fitter, and more alive, by helping you realize a more expansive future as physical beings. It is my hope and the meaning of my life that my feeble efforts in that direction will in turn empower you to illuminate a broader future as social, intellectual, and spiritual beings, and thereby light up a world that only you could ever have revealed.
Seems like a good day’s work to me.
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.