While I was at the gym recently my trainer Franz Snideman and I were talking about the trend in fitness calling back to the times when functional movement was not only the norm but necessary for survival. Many of the disciplines now in the industry of fitness are involving what the ancient Greeks called kalos sthenos. Beautiful strength. I love that. Franz has been incorporating these styles into his sessions for two reasons. Being strong and agile are vital to be self sufficient. Also, when one does different and challenging movements in new ways, it’s clear to see what limitations you have. It’s interesting to me that in the first set of exercises he introduces to me, I’m less coordinated and centered than in the subsequent ones. Our bodies and neurology so quickly learn that with focus, the very next set is remarkably better. Like life! Coming up against our limitations requires us to initially take a risk, rather than being comfortable in our zone of the usual repetition. Then the body adapts, becomes more graceful, we have a new level of confidence and are ready for what’s next. Einstein said, ‘a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest’.
Some years ago we were invited by Dr. Fred Covan, then the Chief Psychologist of Bellevue Hospital in New York to accompany him on a field trip which he said was a prerequisite for all his first year Psych students. Destination: the hospital morgue. Just remembering this is causing me to have jittery feelings in my stomach. I don’t know what I was afraid of, but it was ominous. Bellevue had a reputation for being an inner city hospital where they saw it all. When he described to us the patients who were in the Psychology Ward, I found it hard to picture what the morgue would be like. He sat us down in his office to fill out a form with questions about our beliefs around the subject of death. Then he told us the rules: no talking because it’s releasing nervous energy, and he wanted us to hold the feelings inside. Next, we could talk only when we were back upstairs in his office.
The elevator had a button for the basement of the hospital and people were getting off on each floor as it descended until finally the door opened onto a darkened room where a strange young guy was sitting at an old grey metal desk. This character was chewing gum and was wearing a baseball cap turned backwards. He was reading a comic book and when he saw Dr. Covan, he lit up and greeted us like he was excited about this interruption. The doctor asked who was there that day and the guy opened this huge ledger book with lined pages and entries where he ran his finger down the list. “Kids or no kids?” he asked Fred. “It’s their first time so no kids today” he said. Oh my God, I thought. This is going to be just as bad as I imagined. Then the guy ran down a list of the ‘residents’ reciting their causes of death. “We have 3 heart attacks, 2 gunshot victims…” and I stopped listening after that.
The place was about twice the size of a Seven-Eleven store but dark and cold. There were rows and rows of stainless steel refrigerated compartments, about as tall as me. The four of us walked to specific numbers on the metal doors where Fred and this guy lowered the long levered handle, pulled the door open and reached in to slide out the metal tray holding the body. They smelled of rubbing alcohol and were minimally draped with some kind of sheet but what I remember most were their faces. There was no resemblance of life present. What was there though was finality. Their expressions were frozen in time, the exact moment of their deaths. The heart attack, the wounds from bullets, whatever countenance was so at that last heartbeat was imprinted on what used to be a person, living his life. I wondered who cared about these individuals, who was grieving and glad they weren’t seeing what I was witnessing.
Just as we were about to close the door on the last body, we noticed stuck under the rolling tray and on the floor near the door, a six-pack of beer, stashed by the comical character that was leading us around. I swear to you. Really. Beer. In a morgue. In the ‘cooler’. We all just had to smile at the ridiculous humor of it all in that moment.
When we got back in the elevator on the way to Fred’s office, what I noticed first was that the people getting in were breathing! I wanted to hug them and congratulate them and remind them that life is good and they were alive!
While I don’t believe that death is an ending, I do believe it’s an end to what we once knew as Life. I want to live life as my friend Esther Hickssays is her wish: happy, healthy, happy, healthy, happy, healthy, dead! I know I have at least some control by my choices, physically and emotionally. The other day while working out with Franz, he said it’s the best time ever to be alive. It struck me because there is so little of that conversation around these days. We are so unhappy and dissatisfied with things the way they are and I know there’s so much that needs changing. What’s also true is that we have amazing lives and great opportunities for living as never before. It’s the focus I choose to have as I go through my days. Look for the humor in life. Move my body because I can! Be kind because I never know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Appreciate nature, it’s power and it’s beauty! And breathe! Life has never been better!