Oh no! The American Heart Association has ruined my obituary. Last week on Feb. 13 -- the eve of the feast day of St. Valentine, the Roman who was lovingly martyred by the Emperor Claudius -- I was included in a listing of the 12 "healthiest and heartiest citizens" of Washington.
I have some doubts about that, but I have none at all that if I fall over dead any time soon the obituary writer assigned for the last word on me will have a grabber: "Colman McCarthy, 46, still aglow from the thrill of being chosen by the American Heart Association as a model of fitness, died yesterday an hour after running 10 miles and an hour before going to the library to find the Grail in the revised edition of 'The Vegetarian Alternative.' "
Obituary writers, or at least the merry ones I am cheered to know, understand life's follies as well as anyone. And what is more foolish than a selection of 12 people who are fit only because we have the luck to have time for "a fitness program"?
This is backwards. Life is the only program, and if the ball bounces well, fitness is one of the results. To set out to become fit is as skewed as setting out to become happy. It is making mechanical and technical what should be natural and normal.
In reading about the fitness programs of my fellow 11 healthy and hearty ones, I felt my pulse racing to keep pace with all the unnaturalness that we are chasing. There was the corporate president who rises at 5 a.m. to spend two hours in his home gym. Why not get a job managing a gym and sleep to a normal hour? A symphony violinist trains every day for the Ironman Triathlon, but then he sits making music. A television performer goes to an exercise class three times weekly. A congresswoman jogs, a senator runs, a cardiologist wind-surfs, an actress race-walks. Then they go to work and the flow stops.
Those who have the only genuine claim to fitness are the primordial ones in whom there is no interruption in the way the life-energies are used. Some of the healthiest and heartiest people in Washington are to be found in the city's shelters for homeless women and men. The demands of survival keep them fit, not the stretchout torso-testers at Spa Lady.
The homeless person of the street, whatever else he is lacking, is the epitome of the fit life because he leads the active life. He keeps moving. He is a hunter. Food and shelter must be tracked down. Calories are burned in the pursuit of living, not in living for such a pursuit as fitness. Most of us Heart Association 12 typify the passive life even though we have the image of activeness. Most professional people in Washington are paid for what they do while sitting. The corporation president is a sitter. I am, too. So is the violinist, the senator, the congresswoman. Chairs define us, desks limit us. They get us out of shape. Running, jumping, pushing against trees gets the shape back in. We believe. The ideal is to live a day in which shapeliness -- physical, mental and emotional -- are the results of being alive, not the goals. Many of those who are paid for the performance of their muscles -- construction workers, street cleaners, janitors, coal miners -- are as unbalanced as we chair and desk people. Many of them compensate for their activity with a zeal for sloth that rivals the zeal of us passive ones for frenzy. While the Olympian cyclists are going in for blood-doping, the muscle workers take to beer-doping before the television. They mistakenly believe that exertion on the job should be compensated by disexertion off of it.
Sigmund Freud said that "Whoever understands human nature knows that hardly anything is harder for man to give up than a pleasure he has once experienced." This applies to us passive people who do all we can to be active and to the active people who do everything to be passive. Opposite pleasures are looked for by opposite kinds of people.
The healthiest and the heartiest appear to be those who run the marathons and rise at 5 in the morning to get moving. But these well-conditioned bodies get this way artificially. They -- I, we -- are still engaged in only half-lives that split mental work from physical exertion, with 5 a.m. alarm clocks being the touted escape route to the road to wholeness. The other well-conditioned bodies -- of the manual laborers -- wait for the 5 p.m. time clocks to release them from physical exertion. Who is the fittest?
Everyone, the American Heart Association included, is guessing. "The healthy body lives in silence," said Alexis Carrel. "You cannot hear it, you cannot feel it. Inside deep is the whir of a 16-cylinder motor, and from deep within comes a harmony and peace."
None of that has to do with fine physiques, velour headbands or personal bests. The inspiration to become healthy and then stay healthy is reaching the goal of what George Sheehan sees as "training your brain and your body at the same time." He tells of the many profound thinkers who were "often great walkers as well. Not only can one train the body while one is using the mind; the mind actually works better when the body is in motion. Take 90 minutes a day, and use half of it or more for a walk or a run or a cycle or a swim. Then come back and put the products of your brain's activity on paper or on canvas or into some new appreciation of your life."
And what happens if brain and body resist? "Force the mind back time and again to consider the subject in question. Whatever you have decided to meditate on before you leave the house, require the brain to consider it. The brain is tireless. Do not let it con you into relaxing your demands. Push it to the limit. The body, too, will say, 'That's enough for today.' In the beginning, as with the brain, it will want its own way. Don't give in."
That's what heart is -- not giving in so it won't give out. Obituary writers please note.