The “real world” gets a lot of airtime around the water cooler or in father/son lecture time, but what is it really? Forget the physicist’s conversation of matter and non-matter and the philosopher’s conversation about being and non-being. For most of us, the real world means some version of responsibility that requires us to put up with things we otherwise wouldn’t. An aggravating boss, screaming children, a nagging mother in law. Some days it’s mortgage payments, insurance payments, and alimony. Others it’s retirement questions, college questions, precarious job security, and the dwindling chances for upward mobility.
What it always is, is a migraine cocktail. It’s inputs and stressors we don’t choose or want but are forced to accept, address, and deal with. And we do. Not always gracefully, but we do. We hem and haw, bitch and complain, but eventually and consistently we stay the real world with our stubborn insistence to survive.
We’re constantly reminded about the existence of the real world because there’s nothing people love to complain about more. “My boss is this…” “My boss is that…” We are always going “back to the reality” or telling others to “enjoy your freedom while it lasts…” It’s as if we want others to know how hard we have it so they can acknowledge our struggle and pay homage. On it’s face, it might seem odd that people brag about their misery, but it actually makes perfect sense. The process of obligation and endurance gives us a sense of worth, a daily reminder that accomplishment is possible. Sure it was tough dealing with all the shit you had to deal with, but you did it anyways and here you are. We secretly adore our responsibilities because they are proof of our ability to overcome. Listen closer to people’s complaints and you’ll hear this plainly. The comments will all be laced with traces of pride and condescension toward those who don’t shoulder similar burdens. And this is okay. Those who walk abreast with the expectations of the real world have proven their worth and earned the right to condescend.
But pride in survival is tired and fleeting. The barriers you broke through yesterday are rebuilt anew today and again tomorrow. Even though we secretly love that for which we complain most, we grow weary just the same. Every one of us needs an escape.
Training is exactly this.
First, where the “real world” is obligatory, fitness is volitional. There’s no social requirement to be healthy—only the resolution of the individual to improve. This means that every time you walk into the gym, run up a hill, or pick up a bar it’s because you want to, not because you have to. No deadlines you have to meet or bosses you have to please, just your own decision to train or not train. Asserting this level of control in one’s life is empowering and addicting. Even though training is often just as habitual and routine as a 9 to 5 job, the fact that you choose to do it distinguishes it from the mental aches and pains of a daily grind. This inherent difference creates a void into which we can always retreat if the pressures of the real world become too great.
Second, the physical improvements we make through training are progressive and purposeful. Each day in the gym brings with it a task built on the last, marching us forward toward tangible goals. Unlike the obstacles we overcome at work or at home, something that is accomplished in the gym does not need to be re-accomplished the following day. Once you’ve done a muscle up, you’ve done it. Once you’ve deadlifted 500 lb, you’ve lifted it. Nothing anybody says or does can un-do those achievements. They are etched in your annals forever. This is important because it keeps us in a mindset of continual success. Regardless of the failures and stress we have outside the gym, training always gives us a way to achieve. There aren’t many situations like this out there.
Finally, training is selfish (in a good way). It’s one of the few things you do in your day that is wholly about you. One of my students told me last year that he didn’t start working out until his divorce. The process of separation and its cold legality had left him disoriented, ripped apart, and lost. He described floating through his day without direction or motivation, losing his identity bit by bit. Then, on a friend’s suggestion, he joined a gym and started training. Nothing serious, just an hour a day to “get his mind off things.” It turned out that it didn’t so much get his mind off everything else as it got his mind back on himself. Exercise gave him a way to concentrate his energy on self-improvement rather than self-immolation. That hour a day quickly turned into 2 or 3 and, slowly but surely, this individual started to regain some of the independence and confidence he had lost.
This is an important point. Where the real world inevitably divides our focus and energy into a thousand different strands, training fixes it back on the one thing that’s necessary to all the rest: us. During that hour you’re allowed to forget your job, car, and kids. You’re allowed to turn your cell phone off and fill your ears with clanking bars and industrial fans. During that hour you can be competitive and strong without worrying who you might offend because you’re no longer a parent, an employee, a sibling, or a breadwinner. You’re an athlete. You’re there to get better. This simplicity is the ultimate reprieve from a world bent on being complicated and difficult.
For many, training grows into their lives as much for the reasons outlined above as it does for the physical results it brings. We spend so much time and energy meeting our obligations to family, friends, and coworkers that we forget what it’s like to be in a place where none of that matters. It gets hard to let go. So, essentially, the gym becomes a refuge. Here we have control over our decisions, we make progress every day, and we do it for ourselves. It’s a one-hour vacation from “real” that we need to take and appreciate. Which is why I can never understand why people are afraid of it. Don’t dread this hour, take pleasure in it! This is your time. Re-imagine what you’re doing and why, then re-experience it for what it truly is. And the next time you find yourself in that “real world” conversation, it might be a bit more palatable.