There isn’t a community in this nation which doesn’t prefer an hour at the gym to thirty minutes in a library.
Americans would admit it freely, too. If Gallup polled them, Americans would say, “Well, yeah. Wouldn’t anyone rather look like Marilyn Monroe than think like Ben Franklin? I mean, come on, that’s easy.”
These priorities are, as Robert Frost once called them, sincerely fucked-up. It’s sound reason for health-conscious people to concern themselves with their intellectual diets and exercises at least as much as their physical ones. It’s good logic for health nuts to care about their educations as much as their caloric intake.
The dangers of an unhealthy lifestyle worry many Southern Californians, as well as other folks both domestic and foreign, but those concerns present nothing like the Faustian hellscape that is an intellectually malnourished way of life. The mind deserves at least as much attention as we pay to our diets.
The mind is easily dismissed, because the mind is hard to describe. It’s an abstract concept. Nevertheless, people have cause to worry about exercising their minds just as they fret over diets and exercise, because the mind and body are degrees of the same thing. Neither mind nor body means anything without the other, just like hot and cold, or far and near. Degrees of the same.
This is not a Taoist argument about balance, though. This is a statement rooted in thousands of years of philosophy, thousands of years of brilliant thought.
These thoughts began when someone tried to find the mind. Where it was he or she could not say, and neither could anyone else. No one, in fact, has ever been able to pinpoint the mind satisfactorily, beyond the assertion that it is inextricably braided into the physical brain.
Now, if there is no known location for the mind, why not presume it made of the same energy and matter as everything else in the world? If the mind were nothing more than an effect (and cause) of physical activities of the brain and body, nothing would remain unexplained, nobody would need to wonder where the mind were located, anymore. More fun than that, though, and much more amusing, it would destroy the divide between body and mind, and anyone in search of health food would need to consider whether chamomile tea might not be healthy.
Chamomile promotes drowsiness, you know, and thereby hinders the mind’s ability to concentrate.
Consider the relationship between physical actions and abstract ideas.
Should one decide to flip the bird, one begins by willing the fist to extend the middle finger. The question is, at what point does the incorporeal idea become flesh hard enough to physically move the finger? To answer, one must arbitrarily choose a point along the path from thought to action, and the transformation, so-called, happens too rapidly for anyone to discern a difference. It is as though the action itself contained all the desire, will, and thought that had ever been involved. Ideas and actions are, in the end, inextricable from one another.
It remains possible that our thoughts may be nothing more than the streaming recognition of all our potential actions.
For Batman once said, “Of what use is a dream, if not a blueprint for courageous action” (Batman, the feature film, 1966).
Modern science has corroborated the mind’s influence as part of the body. Harvard’s Dr. Langer successfully showed that housekeepers who merely considered their jobs differently as they went about their duties lost significant weight, as well as ten-percent of their blood pressure. Studies at the Cleveland Clinic recorded participants increasing their muscle strength by thirteen-percent in three months, not by weight training, but by simply imagining themselves doing the exercise for fifteen minutes per day, five days per week. Not to be left out, Drs. Yue and Cole of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Iowa say, “Strength increases can be achieved without repeated muscle activation. . . The results of these experiments add to existing evidence for the neural origin of strength increases that occur before muscle hypertrophy” (J Neurophysiol. 1992 May; 67 (5): 1114-23).
If this evidence for the intimate body-mind relationship does not weigh enough, consider also: thinking has not only the power to slim us down, but also to fatten us up. How many calories are in a Snickers bar craving? Some.
A key reason to favor intellectual exercise over physical exercise is that the earnest pursuit of reason results in the adoption of healthy practices. Active mental lives regularly lead to active physical lives, provided that one’s studies are not allowed to grow too narrow or repetitive. Students of geology or ecology soon deposit themselves on a hike outdoors. Fans of philosophy and poetry, likewise, soon learn to disdain the confines of buildings. Sociology and anthropology fanatics soon find themselves moving about society with the lithe grace of a politician.
No true student of philosophy needs to be told that natural foods nourish better than artificial or chemically treated foods, and indeed, it is likely the growing illiteracy rate among American adults that has allowed such rudimentary lapses of judgment to begin with.
The pursuit of athleticism, however, hardly ever leads to intellectual pursuits. One has merely to look at the workout habits of the typical American to conclude as much: one hour on a treadmill daily, staring at a mounted television while listening to Lady Gaga on headphones, followed by three hours of television in bed to reward ourselves.
As a society, we once walked for miles on a regular basis. We used to read while we walked, too. We did so often enough to form a cliche now long-forgotten, the careless reader blindly turning a corner, running headlong into someone important, someone attractive, or someone dangerous-looking.
“Oh! Excuse me!” the clumsy reader would say, to which the bulldozed pedestrian would reply,
“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
This peeve of society no longer exists to interrupt our afternoon strolls, however, because hardly anyone walks anymore — and even fewer people read. What readers and walkers do exist, certainly do not do them at once, anymore, and this is yet another example of how our intellectual divorce from the physical realm has affected our daily lives.
People interested in their health had better to start a reading habit than a calisthenics regime or a dieting plan. Calisthenics have little to do with one’s quality of life outside of physical fitness. Granted, staying fit and feeling healthy present one with many important benefits, not the least of which being longevity of life, but the benefits of intellectual fitness far outstrip those of a merely athletic lifestyle.
An educated autodidact takes interest in more of the world around him or her, experiences epiphany on a regular basis, and usually gets the joke (even when the joke is not funny). What good would it do to live for a hundred and fifty years, if all the intellectual stimulation one managed in all that time were counting reps and calories? Physical exercise for its own sake feels good — right up to when it hurts — but also involves hours of terribly boring repetition.
Boredom is the agony of an intelligent mind beginning to atrophy, just as aches are the pain of muscles gone unused.
Dull people suffer from boredom like victims of bone cancer. Note the torture children experience at the mall, shopping for school clothes with their mothers. They don’t know enough to entertain themselves with what little stimulation exists for them in that environment, so the effect is like that of sensory deprivation. One might as well blindfold them and bind their hands; they’ve absolutely no idea what to do with themselves.
The difference between a child and an adult is, the child will gladly, eagerly find a way to entertain himself or herself. A dimwitted adult, too far gone and having lapsed into perpetual complacency, grows so comfortable with boredom that he or she can tolerate hours upon hours of commercial television programming, finding no irony in laugh tracks and APPLAUSE signs, predicting the plots of show after show, and repressing occasional surges of distaste, disgust, and boredom with the nimble dexterity of a catatonic ninja.
Stupidity is a vicious circle this way. The dumber one becomes, the more content one is to become an even bigger idiot. As the light goes out from behind the eyes, the person in the dark back there has a dwindling chance to figure out what makes life so generally unbearable for them. If one believes that this ignorance is truly bliss, one is horrifically mistaken.
To return to comparing mental health to physical health, an intelligent yet obese person will need to contend with deadly health concerns — and also might suffer from nightmarish, excruciating social repercussions — but he or she will have logic to resist exacerbating these issues, at least.
An uneducated, unintelligent person (even if blessed with good looks, adequate finances, and loving friends and family) still must survive and endure the following hazards of their fatuousness: irresponsible contraction and communication of disease, increased likelihood of incarceration, hampered ability to communicate, vulnerability to cons and scams, misinformed belief systems, haphazard parenting skills, higher unemployment rate, drastically lower income, poor decision making, higher risk of mental illness, self-inflicted illness, incautiousness and injury, unchecked emotion, social ineptitude, confusion, malnutrition, bewilderment, laziness, haplessness, recklessness, and a nigh-infinite parade of other easily supposed hazards.
Sure, obesity can cause pulmonary hypertension, but stupidity can cause a lawn chair to resemble aircraft.
It will occur to the casual reader that since intellectual exercise seems so much more crucial to a long, healthy life than physical exercise, some logic must exist for the favoritism of Southern Californians and others for the latter. How in the world could so many people ignore the obvious dangers of watching too much television and reading too few books? Granted, the media does everything it can to keep people out of libraries, into strip malls and reclining armchairs, but other reasons exist.
Studying up after a long period of laziness remains many, many times more difficult than losing weight or getting ripped. A little willpower allows access to a proper diet and calisthenics routine — but willpower alone will not help an illiterate person put the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to use. Rob Cooper lost three-hundred pounds in two-and-a-half years, but the ability to read influential works of literature or contemporary science journals takes years of formal education, followed by several more years of diligent bookworming.
These studies aren’t just difficult for an aspiring collegiate, though; they’re also dizzyingly excruciating for a dullard to endure. Dieters have hunger pangs to contend with, and joggers must overcome both pain and fatigue, but neither of these agonies can match the psychological horror of limitless boredom. Eighty percent of U.S. families did not buy or read any books last year, which means they found no joy in turning the pages of Harry Potter, Salem’s Lot, or even their Bibles or Qur’ans. For an uninitiated thinker, completing even so accessible a text as Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is as difficult as scaling a sheer wall, and less enjoyable than staring at one.
Perhaps this accounts for the dull look in their eyes. Maybe staring at walls is the secret addiction of idiots all the world over.
There’s also no immediate monetary profit in engaging new intellectual pursuits. Most people need to clothe their children and put gas in their car. They don’t have time to sit and read Chaucer unless someone will pay them for their time. Even if college educations result in lucrative jobs, they neither put food on the table at home, nor pay for themselves, in the meantime.
This makes reading very unfashionable in places like Southern California, where a successful, meaningful life is measured in terms of material wealth. Everyone in Southern California knows or has met a member of the modern aristocracy who accumulated the entirety of his or her wealth without even a high school diploma. Few remark that these people may lead valueless, colorless lives fraught with confusion, disinterest, and despair. Few question whether raising children, attending churches, or advancing careers can supplant an earnest search for one’s own meaning in life.
An intelligent, educated person with debts to pay, has debts to pay, as well as an appreciation for the horrors and beauties of the world we live in.
An unintelligent, uneducated person with money — has money.
Perhaps the most pervasive cause for the preference of physical health over intellectual health, though, is a social divide between jocks and geeks which prevents a natural exchange of information, information jocks desperately need about the use of books, and information plenty of geeks could use about the use of barbells. Idiots don’t hang out with intellectuals, because educated types make them feel stupid and insecure. This aversion suits educated conversationalists just fine, too, because they’re tired of having to explain to drunk people in basketball jerseys that comparing political figures to Hitler doesn’t facilitate a mutually beneficial discussion.
With a social disparity this extensive, it’s hard to imagine anyone over thirty spending some hard-earned Monday Night Football time learning to play chess, instead. With great hope and trepidation, though, one must presume that it’s happened somewhere, sometime, and that it just might happen somewhere again.
Today, universal health care stands out as Washington’s most ambitious undertaking in decades. In time, the White House might be able to pull it off, too — but what about universal education?
The so-called public option for educating our citizens doesn’t even bother to hide its own shame and self-loathing, anymore. What if one’s intellect really does matter at least as much as one’s biological health? That would make the problem of national obesity look like a pebble beside the Himalayan catastrophe that is our national stupidity.
It’s amusing to consider that universal health care could make an effective political smoke screen, if the categorical failure of Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation were ever to draw unwanted attention. In the years to come, our life expectancy may exceed all expectations, affording every uneducated American an additional ten, twenty, or even thirty years of bad decision making.
Feeling fit and staying active isn’t a silly prospect; it’s an important part of being human, but a healthy physique alone does not a fulfilling, rewarding life make. It behooves us all to balance our time in spin class with our time between the pages of something thought-provoking. It is childish to pretend that looking good and feeling good supplants the need for imagination, contemplation, and meaningful dialogue. Flexed guns and a washboard six-pack can’t govern anyone’s life. They help a black v-neck tee-shirt fit more fashionably, but what has good fashion sense done for us, lately? We’re sexy enough, for Chrissakes.
Were there research available on the subject today, it’s likely that stupidity would prove more responsible for a shitty sex life than outmoded fashion sense ever was. Decent fucking requires a modicum of know-how. No amount of salon time can make up for a person’s inability to locate a clitoris.
Put your bullet-shaped helmet away, o’ legion of spandex-clad bicycle enthusiasts, and pluck up a volume of Bukowski. He’ll keep your interest for an hour or two, I swear. And roll up your spongy L.A. Fitness brand yoga mat, o’ acolytes of spirituality through weight-loss programs, and fetch a copy of Huston Smith. Everything you ever wanted to know about humanity’s search for its soul is there.
It’s time to stop overpaying our athletes and underpaying our teachers, overvaluing our blockbuster hits and underestimating our modern classics. People of great intellect aren’t having a hard time getting laid, they’re having a hard time finding other intellects. It’s time to re-evaluate the amount of attention we pay to our physiques when we pay so little attention to our minds, and it doesn’t take a Mensa award-winner to see the American reasoning faculty drying up like a dessicated chunk of cacti on a cracked stretch of desert highway.
Evolution’s the great equalizer, though. If there’s any truth to it at all, then it won’t take long for all the athletic ignoramuses to jog, hike, and bike straight into traffic or off of cliffs, and the rest of us will have more than enough time to take up aerobics.
With total amazement and utter stupefaction, I remain,