Book review: ‘What Doesn’t Kill Us’ by Scott Carney.

Required reading for the Struggleverse: “What Doesn’t Kill Us,” By Scott Carney.

The human body has changed little since homo sapiens first appeared on the planet about 100,000 years ago. What has changed is the presence of and our reliance on technology. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our daily interactions with the environment.

We, as a species, have used technology to put space between us and the environment. As a result, modern humans do not see themselves as a part of the natural world. 

“We divide the planet into two categories: things influenced by human action and things that are untouched.” Carney writes. “This distinction is false.”

Our standoffish relationship with the environment is perhaps best illustrated by how we cope with cold. For many of us who live in the northeast, a winter morning might look something like this: We rise from our downy blankets, prepare for our day with a steamy shower, gird ourselves in high-tech, insulating fabric, then ride to our heated offices in our heated cars. The human body experiences little variability.

Carney delves into the consequences of ubiquitous comfort by going straight to the research, and the results aren’t pretty. Aside from obesity, the most obvious disease of affluence, our relative lives of ease, when compared to those of our ancient ancestors, may be to blame for a litany of autoimmune disorders. 

So, what’s to be done? Essentially, be more human.

Carney, who writes with the seasoned skepticism of bullshit-detecting journalist, enters the orbit of Wim Hof, the Iceman, at first looking to reveal him as yet another new age huckster. The only problem is that Hof’s methods work. Moreover, the more the methods are researched, the more scientific support they earn. Through breath control, Hof can regulate his immune system, increase tolerance to cold exposure, and boost muscular endurance. And apparently, he can teach just about anybody to do it.

Cold is a central character in this work of nonfiction.

“The sense of fear that comes from the cold reaches down into some dark, primordial core inside every one of us,” Carney writes.

Through his work with Hof, Carney discovers that perhaps this innate fear isn’t as well calibrated as it should be. With enough practice, we can tolerate much more in the way of environmental and mental extremes than we give ourselves credit. 

The book also explores the appeal of obstacle course racing. These so-called suffer fests, such as Tough Mudder and Spartan Race, seem to provide people with a certain amount of deprivation that’s lacking in their daily lives. Once again, Carney is no bystander, but plunges headfirst into this world of physical extremes by taking part in what is considered the toughest OCR in the world, the Tough Guy.

In this entertaining read, in addition to finding inspiring stories of people who have kept symptoms of autoimmune disorders at bay, or who have turned their lives and health around, you will perhaps discover as the author did, that struggle is the ultimate cure for what ails us as individuals and as a society.

Be the wrestler.

Photo courtesy of Smallbones, via Wikimedia Commons

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”
-- Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations”

Winging it is almost never an option. Even jazz musicians agree on a key when playing together. I find that there is a certain amount of orchestration and planning requisite in success in all areas of life, even the ones that require spontaneity.

But dealing with other human beings requires an acknowledgment of the human element. In no sport is this more apparent than baseball. There’s no predicting when the right circumstances will conspire to give a middling pitcher a no-hitter. Maybe it’s an overcast afternoon game on getaway day, the away team anxious to get on the plane, the cloud-cover obstructing the release of the ball from the batter’s perspective. Maybe it’s these things, plus the fact that the journeyman pitcher received a birthday card from his grandmother that morning that contained a $20 bill -- just enough to settle the bet he had with the bullpen catcher on whether or not the starting third baseman pisses on his hands to toughen the skin. An event like this is just about one of the only things Sabermetrics can’t predict.

I have a friend who is a genius. Hand him an instrument, he’ll make it sing in an afternoon. Tell him to learn a language and he’ll absorb it. Supply him with enough information and he will tell you, with a troubling degree of certainty, how long you will live, what will likely kill you and how much money you will likely earn. As an actuary, he can do this for just about anyone.

He would also be the first to tell you that one of the only certainties in life is uncertainty. Even with the most precise instruments and the most negligible confidence intervals, there is still the outlier. The junk heap pitcher will throw a perfect game and go on to become an answer to a question on trivia night, laughed over between mouthfuls of 10-cent wings and dollar beers.

When you think about it, most of the situations we encounter in our day-to-day lives fall outside of our control. We must contend with circumstance at every turn. This can be unnerving, forcing some to recoil and launching others into control binges. 

Or we can be the wrestler. We can refine our strategy, craft it down to the most minute detail. And yet, we can still stand poised for whatever attacks might come. We can stand at the ready, our defenses raised and our senses attuned to the moment at hand.

Bad actors -- or -- 'Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star'

It’s easy to seek refuge in possibility. Possibility is boundless and infinite. If you were to list the personal difficulties of here and now, you’d eventually reach an end. This isn’t so with the permutations of possibility. 

We convince ourselves otherwise. Among the multitudes of possibilities, maybe there’s the silver bullet that’s going to fix everything. It’s enticing, intoxicating. We sign up to play one among limitless roles in the movie called What If, the movie that plays out in our thoughts in real time.

We walk around all day reciting the lines to this orchestrated script to ourselves. How often are we actually here? How often are we truly present, or just watching the movie of our life unfold in our heads?

Moreover, who is the actor in this movie called What If? Who is playing the starring role? Who is the speaker of these lines? Who is, as Sam Harris would say, the “thinker of these thoughts”? 

For many of us, the self, or the ego, plays the starring role in the movie that’s playing out in our heads. This thing that we call a self, where does it reside? Is it in our head, somewhere behind our eyes? Is it in our chests? Is it someplace else? Does it exist at all?

Contemplating this question has driven people to both ends of a spectrum of delusion. Some become beasts. Some become pacifists. Most of us, myself included, fall somewhere in the middle. We take the drug, change jobs, or move to a new state because it’s easier to change roles in the movie called What If rather than opt to stop acting altogether.

We change roles, but is anything really changing? Is person behind the role not the same? Maybe he is. Maybe she isn’t. After all, who is the speaker of these lines? Who is the thinker of these thoughts? Moreover, by selecting a new role, are we any closer to having an answer to these questions?

Thankfully, we don’t have to keep acting. There’s another option. We can ask these questions. By asking them, we disrupt the movie playing in our heads. We stop reciting the lines and maybe we check in with our senses. Maybe we truly see a sunrise for the first time. Maybe we notice the hawk perched atop the telephone pole as we hurtle by at 60 miles per hour. Or at a minimum, maybe we stop scrolling through dozens of Facebook status updates and Instagram postings. 

If the movie of What If has a theme, it’s escapism. Many of us are trying to avoid something. It’s easier to take a few steps backward, into the foggy, gray veil of thought -- to retreat back to the predictability of our role in the movie of What If -- than it is to be present with reality. We’d rather buy into the plot of What If, taking solace in the notion that there’s even a plot to be found in the first place.

Maybe we take a deep breath instead. Maybe we stop telling ourselves the story of how tomorrow is the day we finally slay the dragons that are breathing fire down our necks.

Instead, maybe we just feel the heat.

Where are you?

I had a cross country coach in high school who would calm our pre-race jitters with two refrains. The first, which he rattled off in his North Jersey/Italian-American accent, was, “Get psyched, baby!” The second, which I find myself repeating 15 years later, was, “If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t take the lead!”

How often has that message been lost on me in the 30 years I’ve been on this planet? I’ve missed that point in one way or another daily, that admonition of direction and purpose. 

I haven’t missed the point so much because I didn’t know where I was going. I know that. I’m a goal-oriented person, and as a result, destinations are not in short supply. The heart of my problem is that I don’t know where I’m going because I don’t know where I am.

The most valuable skill I learned in Boy Scouts was orienteering, or using a map and compass for land navigation. The heart of successful land navigation is first, knowing where you are. Without knowing where you are, where you are going is irrelevant. Without knowing where you are, you could be going in a damn circle, which, as I’m learning, is more often the case for me than not.

The destinations I’ve navigated toward, or the goals I’ve pursued, how often have they been influenced by a poor understanding of where I was at? Was I running from something that the reptilian part of my brain perceived as a threat, that was really just somebody’s bad day? Was I avoiding difficult life experiences because I perceived them as too much to handle, that perception being a direct result of clouded judgment?

I write this because it’s taken me 11,024 days to realize that I haven’t paid enough attention to my location, to where I’m at -- physically, emotionally, intellectually. If I’m stressed, I need to be stressed. If I’m afraid, then I need to be afraid. If I’m happy, then I need to be happy. I need to ride it out, experience whatever has come my way, observe it, and then use it to set a course. Maybe you need to do the same.

If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t take the lead. And if you don’t know where you are, don’t go.

'Lost time is not found again.'

Image Source: Library of Congress

Image Source: Library of Congress

I've lost so much time that I will never get back. I whiled it away chasing shadows and vague notions of right. Sometimes, I chased wrong, too, just for the thrill of misbehavior.

I took a quick life expectancy survey just now. I have no idea how scientific or reliable said survey is, but it puts my life expectancy, based on fitness level, socioeconomic factors and bio-metrics at no less and no more than 101 years. That's 14 years more than most people my age.

I'll take it. I can't recoup the time I've wasted, but I can maximize what's left.

I start to think in terms like these when I analyze just how much unproductive time I've spent. How many hours have I swiped blindly at my smartphone? How many weeks worrying over the opinions of others? How many years working on everybody else's dreams but my own?

The quote in the title of this blog post is from a Bob Dylan and The Band collaboration called "Odds And Ends." What I did not realize is that Dylan most likely borrowed it from Ben Franklin. I've been spending time with the Walter Isaacson biography of Franklin, and the amount the founding father accomplished is staggering. He seems to have never been idle.

Isaacson recounts how Franklin's "Poor Richard's Almanac" was one of the printer's most profitable endeavors. The annually published book featured homespun wisdom in the form of quips and sayings that praised the virtues of industriousness and frugality that were so important to Franklin. One of them was, "Lost time is never found again."

Franklin lived to be 84. He understood the value of time. Though time can be lost, thankfully, wisdom can be timeless. It can be rediscovered in a basement in Woodstock, N.Y. in 1967, and again in repurposed bedroom in 2016.

Best-case scenario: 71 years left. Better make them count.

A lesson learned the hard way.

Brakes don't work when a car is airborne.

It's a simple lesson in physics. It's the clearest memory of the crash. My foot on the brake pedal. That dependable, sturdy chunk of steel mashed all the way to the floor. The car gliding through the damp December air. The stereo playing 311 at an eardrum-rattling volume. Seventeen-year-old blood pumping through my veins.

The speedometer needle pointed somewhere north of 75 miles per hour before the car went Pegasus. My friend's Camaro, much to my delight, was a distant set of darting headlights in my rear-view mirror. Gene, my best friend and copilot, had queued up the track. We were immortal.

A small rise catapulted us through the air, sending my Honda across the center line on a diagonal. It was a 1999 Accord coupe with an all-leather interior and a V6 under the hood that churned out 200 horsepower. The dual overhead cams sang an intoxicating siren song when the forest-green dart bounded above 100 miles per hour. With slight hesitation, the automatic transmission would lurch into a lower gear when you stomped the accelerator. That pause was the car saying, in its own mechanized language, "OK, you want it? You've got it, asshole."

The Accord nosedived through a telephone pole at speed. Nearly all of the glass surfaces shattered on impact. The stereo cut out and left us gasping for the air that had been knocked out of our lungs in the silence. When I could breathe again, I asked Gene if he was OK. He said yes, and got out of the passenger door. To this day -- I don't know why -- I crawled through the safety glass, which littered the leather interior like a fresh snowfall, and out the passenger door.

The pole I had plowed down carried a transformer. I didn't know it then, but a quarter of the town had just lost power. Months later, Gene would point out that there were live wires draped across my car door, and a lake of flammable transformer fluid had fanned out below the car. Had I exited through the driver's side, I would have been electrocuted or burned alive.

Instead, I was fine. But Gene's sternum was broken -- an injury that plagues him to this day. A few days went by before I learned the severity of his injury and his pain. There was no justice to it. I was the one who deserved to be broken. And what if I had killed him, I asked myself then, and nearly every time I start a car to this day. What if I had killed my best friend?

Before I wrote this, I texted Gene to ask if he'd be comfortable with me sharing this experience. He wrote, "Of course you know my POV is that I was just as guilty; either of us would have been stupid enough to do exactly the same thing in the driver's seat at that point in time."

It's true, though it does little to assuage my guilt and remorse. I recall our car crash often. I remember my eyes darting from Gene, and back to the twisted steel, from Gene, and back to the splintered telephone pole, from Gene, and back to the snowfall of auto glass.

I remember that we are more like glass than steel.

Different hills.

There is seldom what most would consider a good reason for feeling this way. Depression is a burden that builds up over time, each minuscule weight that gets added to the load is undetectable to the undiscerning. These tiny burdens can be anything: an offhand remark, an emotionally indecipherable email or text, or a nagging worry. But eventually, the load reaches a tipping point.

I've always felt that my depression was unjustifiable. I haven't earned the right to be depressed. I haven't had it bad enough. That self-perceived flaw is the most depressing aspect of all. I have friends and acquaintances who experienced real childhood trauma, or who fought in wars and are contending with PTSD. I feel like my depression cheapens or lessens theirs. 

I have a good life. I had a good childhood. I am successful. On paper, my little, white, American, middle-class life and upbringing are desirable. My position is enviable to 99 percent of the world's population.

I see, acknowledge, and accept these facts with the cool logic of a dispassionate observer. And yet, my windows remain fogged over with the familiar gray haze of depression. It's an obstructed view that I've contended with since I was 8 years old. The first time I was old enough to understand the words of Side B of "Abbey Road," when I heard The Beatles sing in unison, "Boy, you're gonna carry that weight," I knew exactly what they were talking about on a bone-marrow level.

Outside of my immediate circle of friends, I've never spoken or written about my depression, mostly because to this day, I am ashamed of it. No amount of awareness campaigns or chain Facebook statuses will change that. 

I think it's common for human beings to think that their struggles and hardships are unique. But with 7 billion of us talking chimpanzees walking around this rock hurtling through space, the odds of uniqueness are not in our favor. We have more in common than we care to admit.

That means there are others out there like me. I am writing this for them, for those who carry the same weight, who are stultified by the same potent cocktail of guilt, shame, and, oh yeah, that omnipresent depression.

You, slogging up that hill with that heavy ruck. I'm out there slogging with you. Odds are, there are others. We're all just slogging up different hills.