The Meaning of Life

No, I haven’t found it and I’m not going to explain it to you. I’ve been rereading some old George Sheehan pieces, and he sometimes hints at ideas about life’s meaning. Which gets me thinking about my bicycle riding experience.

If you don’t recall or weren’t paying attention, Sheehan was a cardiologist and a pioneer of the running movement, from the 70s until he died in 1993. His columns and articles appeared in publications like Runner’s World magazine, and he authored eight books, mostly about running and health. Because of the thoughtfulness of his pieces, he was known as the philosopher of running. Running for health was new in the popular culture, in the 60s and early 70s, and Sheehan’s thoughtful pieces about it gave running, for many people, a meaning beyond the mere physical. Four or five decades later, running is now well integrated into our culture. We all know someone who runs marathons or half-marathons, or even triathlons. Joggers are everywhere. Gym memberships are almost as common as debit cards (which didn’t exist in the early decades of Sheehan’s career). Working out, in whatever form, is now commonplace.

Which brings me back to the meaning of life. For both adults and children, play (or at least physical play—I’m not talking here about Grand Theft Auto or chess or Sudoku) involves moving and exertion, straining and sometimes even sweating, having all the ingredients of physical exercise. Exercising simply to get in shape, to lose weight, or to get our cholesterol down, can be a chore. But there is a secret heart to exercise that working out merely to work out can miss. Play is that secret heart. Sheehan defines play as “the priceless ingredient in exercise.” Referring to a list of physical activities like running, swimming, riding horses, and engaging in an afternoon softball game, he says, “Play is where we live.” Play is “where we come alive and open ourselves to experience.”

You can see the equation developing here. Play engages us at a level that more mundane experiences perhaps cannot reach. In play, we reach for the outside-of-us, and the outside-of-us reaches in. In play there is a sense of intrinsic meaning in what we are doing now, in how we feel now. That sense of meaning in the now-experience is fun. Just fun.

Which brings me to what I was thinking about as I started this piece: What I’m feeling as I ride. I feel lots of things. I feel my legs working to get me up a hill, my breath speeding up to match the effort, my arms and hands pulling a bit harder at the handlebars. I feel the headwind pushing back against my progress. Or I feel the easy cruise of a long downhill, the gracefully fast smoothness that feels so masterful.

Sometimes on a long ride my mind wanders in and out of my daily life, rehearing or re-rehearsing a recent argument, or pondering the solution to some problem, or thinking about what I’m supposed to get done after I finish the ride. Mostly, though, I’m just riding. I’m watching pavement rush past under the front tire. I’m looking at the landscape, or watching for sharp tire hazards, listening to my breath, smelling the air (I mostly ride in rural settings, where the air is clean). I’m watching my average speed on the bike computer, or checking my heart rate reading. I’m flying downhill, or cruising on a long level stretch, or pushing, sweating to get up a challenging uphill. I’m not doing anything but riding. I’m in it, and it is what I’m doing. For that little while, that hour or two or three, it’s all I’m doing. And, hard or easy, it’s fun.

Meaning of life? Who knows. But I’m with George Sheehan on this one. This feeling of play, of absorption in the moment, of the outside-of-me reaching in and of me reaching out, sure feels like meaning to me. Or at any rate, it sure feels fun.

POSTSCRIPT

Just as I was finishing up this post, I was surprised by a mild heart attack, followed shortly afterward by triple bypass heart surgery. Not fun, but I’m on the mend. Obviously, then, my next post or two are going to be about recovery, and how I get back on the bike and back into training. See you there!

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