Hurry up and slow down: Life is all about a journey well traveled

The ceaseless struggle to keep up and surpass has taken its toll on human health. There is always the anxiety that someone will get ahead of us.

Since his retirement, my father-in-law has taken to the notion of a long jog every day. He used to be vulnerable to influenza and still suffers from diabetes, but his health has since much improved — at least that’s how he sees it.

But his view was recently challenged by his brother-in-law, a former middle school teacher who never misses a chance to start an argument.

At a family gathering recently, he insisted that, instead of taking exercise, the recipe for longevity, as least as far as the elderly are concerned, is a sedentary life and avoidance of physical exercise.

He cited the example of my father-in-law’s father, who is 90 year’s old, and still going strong. He never takes any physical exercise.

The grandfather is not alone. Another 89-year-old acquaintance of mine surnamed Chen told me recently that he had never taken much exercise in his early years, and rarely ventures outdoors today.

Yet he is in better condition than his wife, who is two years younger than him and used to be a member of the basketball team at her middle school. The wife has to be put in a wheelchair when she goes out today.

I was somewhat shocked to learn that Chen had actually survived a myocardial infarction, a pancreatitis, and a surgery on carcinoma of the rectum 28 years ago. Chen proclaims himself a non-believer, but firmly believes there is a mysterious, all-seeing force above that takes care of everything, and ensures that justice is done. As such, after his surgery, Chen did not take seriously the medication the doctor prescribed him.

Chen once shared with me a poem that touched him:

Everyone is running their own RACE, in their own TIME.

Don’t envy them or mock them.

They are in their TIME ZONE, and you are in yours!

But the modern rat race has led to a chronic fear of being not fast enough, not healthier, not rich enough, or not so successful. And in the age of social media, there is always the fear of missing out on something.

The typical Chinese sports a more cavalier attitude. While fully accepting the limitations of this existence, he refuses to have his life reduced to mechanical laws. He was born in the nick of time, enjoys the amenities of life as allocated him, and feels quite content as he sees his next generations grow up — in the full acknowledgement that however one struggles, few exceed the mortal limit of three-score and ten.

In matters of health, we tend to view it holistically, as inseparable from mental health — particularly the freedom from care and anxiety. As a result, solicitudes about one’s health could not have been begotten of a sound mind, and is more a sign of morbidity to be worried about than the disease itself.

This attitude allows us to take lightly a lot of things that are “external.”

We become resigned to our status as a transient guest in this earthly hotel, rather than seeking to be a permanent tenant.

Some accuse Chinese of being non-believers, but as a matter of fact, most Chinese instinctively subscribe to Confucianism, tinged by philosophies of Laotzu, Chuangtzu, or Buddha.

Probably because we rarely extend our view to the afterlife (as Confucius said: “How can you know what death is before knowing what life is?”), our understanding of the living process is more catholic. We prefer to see it as a poem, rather than a fight.

In tune with nature

When Chuangtzu’s wife died, Chuangtzu was seen squatting on the ground, singing a song and beating time by striking an earthen basin. Someone who was paying a condolence call demanded an explanation, and Chuangtzu replied that he stopped crying and was cheered up by the thought that by becoming dead, his wife had joined again the eternal procession of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This perception of human life as evanescent — quickly fading but as part of the seasonal transformation — is at the back of all Chinese philosophy.

Rather than fight to gain the head-start, outsmart our neighbors or strengthen our financial position, we are more charmed by the life of a loafer. Given our cultural maturity, we have evolved to become constitutionally more susceptible to the moon that waxes and wanes, the flowers that bloom and wither, and the tide that ebbs and flows. We have become so attuned to the seasonal changes that to become out of sync with nature is taken to be more a sign of morbidity than an physical indisposition.

Some Westerners today are proposing a similar attitude. In his “Reasons to Stay Alive,” celebrated author Matt Haig relates how, after surviving serious depression, he learned to celebrate the small joys and moments of peace that life brings, and reminds his readers that there are always reasons to stay alive.

An article entitled “How to Cultivate Passion for Life” (March 8, China Youth Daily), citing research findings, concluded that the major things that prevent people from becoming passionate about life, in addition to reckless pursuit of excessive consumption, also include the versatility of modern life and obsession with instant gratification as symbolized by express delivery. It observed that the versatility of daily activity and the fast tempo of life prevent us from really participating in any of the activity, not to say deriving pleasure therefrom.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a leading researcher obsessed with what makes people truly happy, observed that “When we are involved in (creativity), we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.” He is the architect of the notion of “flow” — the moment when a person is completely involved in an activity for its own sake.

Sadly, most jobs today do not provide that kind of involvement. Rather, material incentives or money have become the chief or only reasons for engagement.

By contrast, when we live our life on our own terms or at our own pace, we seem to be at one with the universe.

This contrasts with modern obsession with efficiency and success. The driven pursuit of achievement and the never-ending cycle of getting, spending, and getting more make most modernized urbanites unfit for the beauty the nature has to offer, as they become estranged from the joys of loafing, lolling and lounging, idling, or standing and staring.

In forever perfecting the art of getting things done, they grow estranged to the notion of leaving things undone. Like happiness, health is at its best when least noticed. When health is diligently pursued, it can be elusive.

We are leaving behind us the years when, in a tea house, a pot of tea can last a whole afternoon. Now this gives way to a grab-and-go cup of Starbucks, as we try to pack more and more things into our crammed schedule.

The ceaseless struggle to keep up and surpass has taken its toll on human health. There is always the anxiety that someone will get ahead of us, has experienced an amusement ride before us, or has tasted a bowl of wonton that has been the talk of the town for the past week.

Wearied, some are bowing out of the race. In Japan there are the hikikomori, who choose to withdraw from social life. An even bigger menace to health today are the ubiquitous e-devices that are exercising despotic sway over all our life by supplying instant gratification.

These developments might help you better understand why when a Chinese does have a mind to keep fit, his recipe might be the tai chi, which is about how to slow down, rather than run faster.

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