The other week, I was riding my bicycle to the store. I’m in the bike lane. A car rolls up on my left. There’s a traffic light. Suddenly, the car swerves to make a right turn, over the bike lane, and cuts me off. It hits my front wheel. I slam my brakes, but it is too late. I fall over and hit the ground. The car keeps driving. A second or two passes. I’m lying on the asphalt trying to memorize the license plate. My wheels are spinning in the air. Pumping with adrenaline, I pick myself up. Miraculously, my bicycle is not bent. I’ve got tiny scrapes on my hands. I have a bigger scrape on my knee – maybe two inches of road rash, a little bit of blood. I brush off the dirt. Nothing serious, I assess, and I get back on my bike, ride to the store – adrenaline still pumping, furious – buy milk, and carefully ride on home.
As I rode home, I thought: when was the last time I had gotten a small scrape? I couldn’t remember. Maybe it was literally a decade ago, when I played some pickup ice hockey and wound up with a couple of small cuts after nasty falls on ice.
But in the years since, as I had literally never gotten injured, I had become afraid. Having forgotten what it was like to take a tumble, that unknown became scarier and scarier. I was terrified of crashing my bicycle. What if I fall? Roller blading? Sounds like a great way to get road rash. Rock climbing? No thanks. Even riding a lime scooter felt a little anxiety-inducing.
I spend a lot of time indoors, looking at screens. COVID quarantine made my lifestyle only more sedentary. This has many health effects, but a rarely-discussed one is that your world of physical activity becomes smaller: you become scared of activities where you could get just slightly hurt. You lose the fitness and courage to take on demanding stuff like kiteboarding. The thrills of mountain biking, surfing, and back-flips become off limits. You’re just so damn comfortable all the time that even going to the doctor’s to get vaccinated is a six-sigma earthquake-tier disruption to your comfort.
That’s bad. When I was a kid, I was pretty indoorsy, but I still got little scrapes all the time. I fell off my bicycle more times than I can count. I got concussions, smashed my Razor Scooter, and jumped off a lot of unreasonably tall structures. I knew the limits of my physical world, and my body, very well.
As an adult, it’s pathetic that my world became smaller. When’s the last time I climbed anything? When’s the last time you touched something that wasn’t man-made? It’s like there’s a tactile, physical sense that slowly gets lost as your fingers just run up and down a keyboard all day. It feels like I spent too much time living in my mind and not enough in my body, or even being aware of it.1 You work out, get in good shape, but for what? To impress others in a game where muscles are a status symbol?2 What happened to enjoying your body by using it, flexing its limits, feeling its power as you physically conquer the elements?
No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable. - Socrates
Socrates’ commentary on physical fitness was apt, but it needs to be updated for the twenty-first century of sterile gym machines and hyper-optimized workouts: it is a tragedy to be so sedentary that you are hesitant to get physical with nature. To be afraid of minor injuries that your body has evolved to be able to sustain a thousand times over. Our bodies are amazingly capable, and most of us never put them even remotely to the test. Taleb would say that we’re becoming fragile.
I didn’t love getting into a traffic accident. But it was good to pick up a small scrape. It blew away a lot of fear, and reminded me just how capable and resilient the body is. I’m too young to feel so fragile. I’m determined to head out there more, play with my hands, climb stuff, get physical with nature. So what if I fall?
Paul Skallas reminded me that in our Western society, it’s been common since the days of Descartes to view the body and mind as very separate – the mind as the supreme thing in a meaningless vessel. I think this view is largely mistaken. ↩