Back to Fitness: Man’s Search for Meaning… Through Exercise, of Course

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A few months ago, I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to and was overwhelmed by the limitless options on Audible, and thus, failing. I decided to check out their “free” catalog and came across Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I had never read it and I’m so glad I did.

For those uninitiated, Man’s Search for Meaning was written by Frankl in 1945, just a few months after returning home as a survivor of several concentration camps during World War II.

Prior to the war, Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria. The Nazi takeover caused bad things to happen, including the forced abortion of the Frankls’ child because they were Jewish.  Later his wife, mother, father, and brother were all killed in concentration camps, while he somehow survived in the camps for several years. His book is both a biography of his time in the camps as well as an existential exploration of how, when stripped of quite literally everything in your life, including your clothes, you can somehow still find meaning.  

Man’s Search for Meaning provokes deep thinking about our mission in this life, and it’s amazing how relevant it is today, almost 80 years later. I’m going to have to purchase a copy and a highlighter and read it again and again. As a side note here, I am a believer that if people would simply read more historical books (about anything!), we would be a better, more harmonious world.  

Frankl talks specifically about three ways that he has discovered one can find meaning in their life. To quote Frankl:

“There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love…

Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.”

Or, to paraphrase that last avenue, by experiencing unavoidable suffering and the attitude one takes toward it.

As a 45-year-old husband and father, I am square in the middle of midlife, life-assessing, and this book opened many doors of self-realization. As someone who loves spending as much time as I can running in the mountains, I saw a parallel in Frankl’s “three avenues” with how endurance athletes find meaning in life by their craft of exercise. I’d like to break these avenues down in terms of when we are pursuing fitness, and, yes, this applies to everyone, whether an “endurance athlete” or someone looking to get off the couch and improve their health.  

1)  By creating work or doing a deed. Truly changing your fitness involves changing your habits and one of those habits needs to be disciplined exercise. Now, the beauty here is that “disciplined exercise” doesn’t have to suck! Too often people think of exercise as having to work out in the gym (what does that even mean?) or doing something like running, that at the moment seems like torture. Getting fit simply involves regularly getting your heart rate up and your legs moving, and it is you who will create this work. I decided years ago that I don’t like swimming and I don’t like strength training—so I never do them! I love “exercising” in the mountains, and so I have crafted some routines that not only work to get my heart rate up but that I love. This “creating work” and “doing a deed” start to become a personal routine, and with commitment, discipline, and regularity, it becomes very meaningful. I feel it is so important to say that almost never do I jump out of bed in the morning and say, “I’m so glad I’m getting up at 4:30 a.m. to exercise!” However, when I am finishing a run, approaching my still sleepy neighborhood as the sun just starts rising, I know that I have done something meaningful that will stick with me throughout my day. Over time, the consistency of this practice gives it even more meaning. 

2)  By experiencing something or encountering someone. We are so very spoiled to live here in Crozet, and if you don’t feel that way, then I suggest you are not getting outdoors into all of the incredibly special places that we have such quick access to. Have you never been up on Big Survey Trail in Mint Springs Park? Have you never explored the Moormans River above the Sugar Hollow Reservoir? Have you never been on the Appalachian Trail at the top of Jarmans Gap Road and just walked for a bit north or south? Have you been outside, away from your house lights on a clear winter night and really looked at the stars? Have you seen Bucks Elbow Mountain and Calf Mountain lit up in the morning sunrise? Have you run up that hill on Old Trail Drive to 250 and felt your heart pounding and your lungs heaving? Have you come face to face with a deer or a bear?  Have you done these things with someone?  

My morning runs with my friends are the best therapy sessions. By experiencing nature, and its interplay with human development, and by doing this with someone, deep meaning can be found.

3)  By experiencing suffering and our attitude towards it. This is the heavy one. Let’s face it, we don’t want to suffer in life, and we certainly don’t want our loved ones to suffer. Yet we all will, and our response to it does to some degree define us. I hope that none of us will ever have to endure suffering on a level anywhere near what the Jewish people endured during WWII. I can’t imagine that Frankl was at all grateful for his suffering, however he was clearly strengthened by it.

The jump from there to the self-imposed suffering of signing up for the Charlottesville 10-Miler seems a bit immature. However, I say that even our First World, self-imposed suffering wearing Patagonia shorts and a $400 GPS watch has strong merit in making us better people. I have found great meaning in pursuing ultra-running, which I admit is a bit extreme and perhaps obsessive. I race 4 or 5 times a year and in almost every race I get to a point where I am no longer enjoying the endeavor, especially in the longer races, such as 100-milers.

The most transformative experiences happen when I am at a new low of fatigue, frustration, and apathy. When, not only am I suffering mightily, but have no will and don’t care. But, then, somehow, I’ve managed to find enough inside me to finish. That type of suffering, which is not too different from that of brand-new runners trying their first 5k, is meaningful. That type of suffering, when repeated somewhat regularly, is transformative.  

May you find ways to make work, encounter nature and people, and suffer mightily in the new year. 

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