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I’ve always hated the idea of exercise for its own sake. The thought of running somewhere, turning around, and running back just for the sake of burning some calories and increasing fitness seemed pointless, unsustainable, and ultimately futile – not to mention extremely tiring.
Melancholics are idealists, and the ideal for exercise is to get it by accident – in the pursuit of some other goal or purpose. If Australian cities weren’t so spread out, we’d be walking or riding everywhere for convenience and getting exercise in the process. If our occupations didn’t tie us to desks but required some degree of manual labour we wouldn’t need to lift weights in our spare time. If our whole lives weren’t laid out for our total convenience we might actually benefit from stretching and pushing ourselves to overcome everyday obstacles.
The best I could do to achieve the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was to learn a martial art, and to some extent it worked – the focus on learning and refining a skill turned the actual hard work of exercise into a by-product.
But martial arts were never designed with pure fitness in mind, and eventually I had to admit that the ‘exercise by accident’ ideal was unachievable in practice. In resignation I decided to run.
For various reasons I’ve never been a runner. Poor coordination, poor posture, dodgy proprioception made the pain of running even less bearable. I avoided running as much as possible. In my mind running was the worst possible form of exercise for its own sake.
So when I took it up a few months back in the evenings after work, I was surprised to find that it was even worse than I could have imagined.
It turns out that running really is the worst kind of exercise I’ve ever experienced. But there’s no way I’m going to remain fit and healthy without embracing the pain and exhaustion of exercise for its own sake. And when I finally did embrace it, I discovered that my idealism could still function, still turn the pain and exhaustion into something meaningful.
Instead of the ideal of ‘exercise by accident’, I discovered a new ideal of running as the most pure, basic, and demanding way of moving; the simple yet challenging goal of moving my body under its own power through space at speed.
It doesn’t really get easier, and I forget each time just how difficult and unpleasant it is. But the new ideal of the absolute challenge of running keeps me motivated, and shows that the melancholic capacity for idealism is more powerful than I thought.
It’s not simply a matter of needing to act in accordance with one’s ideals, but of having the ability to locate the ideals within any meaningful activity – to see the world through idealist eyes. It’s also a reminder that if we aren’t careful, the melancholic’s lack of courage can obscure the full potential of this idealist perspective, letting a ‘settled’ ideal keep us conveniently avoiding the hard work of a more direct and honest path to our goals.