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March 31, 2016

Pacing Ourselves in Breathless Times

Sound body, sound mind -- Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales

A common denominator in the lessons on silence, listening and patience is the wholesomeness they create that leads to the good life. We now turn to another essential quality of the good life: knowing how to properly pace our self in an out-of-breath-age.

As I walked up the stairs to my office, I bounced off the sidewalls of the stairwell; a worse case of nerves I never experienced! The cause of my fear was feeling unqualified for a new position I had taken in Washington, D.C.

"I need to change my pace of life if I am going to survive," I told myself and wondered what was needed to accomplish this.

Marathons were becoming popular at the time. "Ah, here is my safety valve!" I thought.

Thanks to encouragement from Fr. Rollins Lambert, the first African American priest for Chicago, with whom I lived, I began training in earnest.

Reflecting on my running days, I can say without qualification they were an absolute blessing despite the rigorous discipline they required! The lessons learned were priceless for anyone desiring to live a healthy life.

The first lesson learned is getting in shape is ever so difficult to achieve, and ever so easy to lose. There's the saying, "A body in motion tends to remain in motion." As wise as is this principle, rising early in the morning and moving a body that prefers to sleep requires enormous will power; how true the age-old truism is, "Maintaining fitness is a life-long battle that is never finally won!"

What does marathon training involve, and what can it teach us about pacing our self?

To complete a marathon requires three to five months of training. A running schedule may start with five miles a day, and then gradually increase until being able to run twenty miles non-stop. Getting in shape can't be rushed. It requires starting with small steps and increasing speed little by little. Developing a wise pace is indispensable; if it is too fast or too slow, training can become a nightmare.

Setting a reasonable pace not only applies to running, but to the well-being of everyone. For example, in the first quarter of a football game, a team with a large lead may seem to have the game won only to come to the fourth quarter and find their opponents outpaced them and won. Hospitals are filled with people whose torrid pace eventually drops them from exhaustion.

The word pace in Latin is pandere, to stretch out the leg, picturing a runner stretching to work out stiffness that impairs smooth, rhythmical running. When we apply this to life, it points us to the key role rhythm plays in it. So often our daily rhythms are anything but rhythmical. National and local news speeds through our minds in split seconds without allowing us to pause and digest it. We rush for trains and buses, and drive and eat too fast, and never slow down until our bodies and minds say, "Enough is enough!"

It's no exaggeration to say most of us are matter-of-fact about rushing through the day. Going with the flow seems normal to us. Unfortunately, when we get to where we are going we don't stop, but rush off to another task. As a consequent, an essential quality of well-being is diminished, i.e., our power to focus.

On the subject of being focused, Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, "Concentration is the secret of our strength."[i] My guess is that no one ever thinks of being focused as medicinal, and yet it is one of the best medicines ever.

A frightening effect of depression is losing possession of one's faculties. Suddenly the mind goes haywire and thinking becomes jumbled. People have often told me they would rather break their neck than go through its darkness.

I don't think Emerson was thinking of depressed people when he spoke of the strength of concentration, and yet it aptly applies to them. How does concentration and being focused accomplish this? It achieves this by generating stillness that enabling a person to order his or her thoughts and emotions and to take better hold of self; it reinstates a restorative rhythm in one's life. Put another way, concentration is like a pace maker that regulates the rhythms of the mind and emotions.

Another essential lesson of pacing is found in the African proverb, "Send a boy where he wants to go and you'll see his best pace."

To practice a healthy pace of life, the youthful temptation to continuously plunge ahead full speed needs harnessing. There is the saying, "boys will be boys" meaning youth often go all out and throw caution to the wind. Sad to say, some youth who give into this temptation don't make it to adulthood. A healthy pace of life is for all ages!

Setting a wholesome pace of life is a holistic process; it not only includes cultivating a reasonable pace, but all that supports it. Take, for example, the pace at which we eat and prepare our food. One of the tragedies of our fast food age is the art of eating is being lost. Oh yes, we have those memorable meals that are out of this world, but what about healthy eating in the long run? Could it be our quickened pace of life is why so many medicine cabinets are filled with antacids, laxatives, and sleeping pills? Could it be we have entered into Arduous Huxley's brave new world in which pills are needed to get through the day and our meals?

Whenever I visit Italy, it is a treat! What in particular is so enjoyable? It is the reverence most Italians have in preparing their food and especially their delightful relaxed pace in eating it. A meal can last from an hour to three hours; just the right touch of time to properly savor and digest it.

Italians, like so many other cultures, also make cooking an art. When my Italian grandmother and mother prepared meals, they weren't big but they were truly awesome. What was their secret? It was the pace of their cooking; they didn't throw a meal together; they prepared it hours in advance, allowing the food to absorb the seasonings. They also knew how to add the proper amount of spices. There was an Italian saying in our home, "A meal is excellent when those eating it comment, 'this tastes wonderful, what did you put into it?'" The response, "Not too much garlic, not too little!"

It is medically proven that good conditioning generates happier moods. Runners call this "a runner's high." Why is this so? One reason is conditioning requires a routine that generates a healthy rhythm: we breathe more deeply; stretch more and become suppler, raising our circulation to its optimum. We not only feel good physically, but psychologically we sense we are doing something good for ourselves. In my years of running, I have found achieving a runner's high to be the good life at its best.

When we talk about achieving a happier mood, how does this translate? Its exhilaration may be caused by eating properly, being in better synch with ourself, or becoming leaner and more energized. It may be the consequence of finding a means of fighting depression, or coping with a physical disability. It may be the effect of generating greater self-confidence in completing a race. For some, it may lead to meditation and peace of mind. Anyone who has glided quietly through woods, along a lake or an ocean will tell you it's the perfect setting for finding peace. The key to all of the above is being in synch and enjoying refreshing life-enhancing rhythms.

Like anything good, maintaining a proper pace over time requires prudence. One of the toughest lessons I learned from running is there is no fool like an old fool. As difficult as it is to accept, no one is exempt from getting older and needing to change their pace of life. Accepting this fact is paramount to living the good life. Why emphasize this principle? It is because new stages of life require us to adjust our rhythms in order to enjoy the changes. To neglect this principle is to invite frustration over aging.

After years of pounding the pavement, I realized it was time to slow down my pace and reassess my routines. Accepting this is difficult because it means accepting we aren't what we used to be; how we yearn for perpetual youth and the glory of past times! When we swallow this distasteful pill, its freeing effect is delightful; we have happily accepted and moved onto a new stage of our life.

As with anything that is precious, maintaining a life-enhancing pace requires asceticism. The word asceticism is derived from the Greek askesis, meaning practice and exercise in the proper directing of one's life. More often than not we envision it as rigorous and undesirable discipline. And yet its main goal is not to enslave us and take joy out of life. Rather its aim is to better direct our life --- to go down the right path of life. Maintaining a healthy, steadfast pace requires constant work, which when seen as a creating life-giving order, turns work into a joy.

No doubt when most of us think of pacing our life, we don't consider it virtuous. On the contrary, it is virtuous because of the order it creates, reflecting the order God created when God formed the world.