At the Gym, So Too in Life

November 11, 2016

I’ve been going to the gym regularly – nearly every morning except Shabbos – since the Monday following last January’s blizzard. Once, working out was something I rarely thought about, and then, only with dread. Now, it is something I think about all the time, something my body actually craves.

Oh, sure, there are physical benefits, like fitting into my old clothes, and health perks, like steadily lowering the numbers the doctors fuss over. There are other things, too – improved memory, strength, energy, and mood. But what keeps me coming back day after day is the crowd.

We, together with our instructors, are a heterogeneous bunch, those of us who attend more or less the same classes on the same days. We are a mix of colors, worldviews, ages, backgrounds, professions, nationalities, and more. We are married, or not. We have children, or none. Our body shapes and our training goals differ. So do the injuries and bruises we nurse. Our attire ranges from my skirt and long-sleeves to those cute, skimpy yoga outfits beyond my reach. Our personal stories vary also, as does the baggage we schlepp to the gym and confront once again when we head out the door, back to our regular lives. In short, we are a microcosm of the rest of the country.

We may not think too much about our differences, though pretending we are all the same would make no sense at all. Appreciation for the many human variations is a strength – a kind of poetry, even. It offers us a window onto other cultures and ways of thinking and lifestyles. G-d loves diversity, said Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a talk I heard last year. We are all different, he added, yet we are all formed in His image. At the gym, we blend those differences around a common goal: to grow stronger with each passing pushup, to improve the health of the bodies we’ve been granted tenancy of while we are here on earth.

In class, we sweat and bench press and squat, becoming a community in the process, noticing if one of our number is absent, offering mutual support. We encourage one another to be kind to ourselves, to overcome at times when we feel broken and defeated by the state of our bodies. And no matter what else we’re all about, we keep one another coming back so that we can keep moving forward in pursuit of our goals.

On the morning of the presidential election, I decided to delay going to the gym until the late afternoon, when I suspected I’d need the release of kickboxing to get me through the long, tense night ahead. The past months of the campaign have pained me, especially the way we’ve hardly listened to one another, so divisive the discourse has become, sometimes even around our Shabbos tables. Those of us in class that day talked about how we hoped we were nearing the end of that long haul, that we would be able to put it all behind us just as soon as the results were in.

I’d already voted earlier in the day at our nearby polling station, which happens to be our son’s former elementary school. It is a cheerful place decorated with motivational signs about striving and staying positive, about being a good citizen and working hard. How apt, I thought, not just for the students, but for those of us who’d come to do our civic duty and exercise our privilege as citizens. Yet as a person of faith, I reminded myself that the election results, whether we perceive them to be our doom or our salvation, are part of a bigger plan our mortal eyes cannot see.

That does not mean our hands are tied. We have a role to play, even those of us who spend our time in the shadows, far from public service. For as it is at the gym, so it goes in life. We humans possess enormous strength and potential. Let’s use it to create an atmosphere of kindness, to coalesce into a community that pushes against the tide and fights the current unraveling. Because at the end of the day, no matter our background or our politics, we have to live with one another. Whether it is in peace is entirely up to us.