After Mass today (courtesy of the mall monks) I drove on post to go to the gym. Everyone on post seems to have the day off today, including myself (I have no idea why, but I'm not complaining) so the gym was empty. Just me and the guy cleaning the weight room.
I haven't lifted in a while, due to training out in the mountains. Climbing is a different kind of workout, but I was still able to hit a 462Lb deadlift for one rep. My goal is to hit 500lbs again someday (without hurting myself this time) and be able to lift it for reps. I also did some hand stand pushups and some overhead squats, and then decided to call that good.
While I was changing in the locker room I heard someone moving around on the other side of the row of lockers. By the time I had finished changing I knew that 1) he was old, and 2) he had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. My bet is emphysema because of that peculiar, regular, breathy cough.)
On my way out of the locker room I looked over to see my fellow going-to-the-gym-on-his-day-off comrade. I was right, he was old. Very old, probably in his seventies. His arms were wasted and wrinkled, I could hear every breath that came out of his mouth, and yet he was still strapping on a lifting belt.
It got me thinking.
I am 27 years old. I can run six miles in under an hour with a 45lb pack on my back, at 6,000 ft. elevation and be ready to fight when I get there. I can deadlift twice my body weight for reps. I can climb rocks, I can swim, I can fight. I have spent years training myself to this physical level, partially because it is my job, but mostly because I just enjoy being healthy and strong and able to do all those things. And no matter how hard I work, if I survive long enough I will look like that old man.
It is not a new thought, to me. I have long since been fully aware of my own mortality, and have put a great deal of thought into why I spend so much time training a body that is destined for old age (if I'm lucky) decay, disease, and the grave. I put more effort in than most guys, less than some, but in the end how much effort or what level of fitness you strive for is unimportant. What really matters is why. The reason is everything. Do you want to pick up chicks? That will work for a while, but not forever. Everything sags eventually, biceps included. Do you want to be known as the world's greatest (insert sport of choice here.) Fine. Maybe you can reach that level, maybe you cannot. What is certain is that you cannot maintain that level forever, and someday, maybe during your lifetime, maybe after it, someone will come along and break whatever record you set. My goal is to be able to serve and protect people, but even that will not last forever, on a strictly physical level. Someday I will be injured, or wounded, or killed, or I will just plain get old, and I won't be able to move, shoot and communicate like I can now. I won't even want to.
I admire that old man in the locker room with all my heart. I don't know what his reasons were, and he may well have been a horrible person, or the best man alive. All I know is that I saw discipline there. Never mind his physical weakness, his aches and pains, the disease that will inevitably kill him unless something else kills him first. Despite all of that he still straps on his weight belt and pushes himself.
When I get to that level I hope to be doing the same thing. I will no longer be able to crush the bad guys, or climb up mountains. My days of serving and protecting will inevitably end, unless...
Unless, in all of my physical training there is some spiritual sacrifice, some shaping of my soul. Even when I am lying in a hospital bed, my body wasted and broken, God willing my soul, shaped and forged through years of training, will be strong and whole. I will no longer be able to place my body between the innocent and those who would do them harm, but by God's grace I can still place my soul there. And in the very end, when I can do nothing, and have nothing left to give, may I accept even that weakness as an opportunity for God's strength.
Every young man should have the chance to see a very old man facing death. It helps keep us from wasting our time.