Your life is the medium

We are delusional. As trainers, coaches and medical professionals, we give our patients and clients neat, rational prescriptions for getting in shape or treating their various afflictions. We tell them to do so many reps or miles at such-and-such an interval. We tell them to take so many grams of such-and-such a substance at certain times each day, in combination with other substances. If people would simply comply with the programs and formulas that we provide, all would be well with their bodies and their lives. But the thing we keep forgetting is that most people’s lives are, to put it bluntly, a mess. Even for those who are lucky enough to have a steady, well-paying job with predictable challenges, life is constantly throwing monkeywrenches into our plans and our schedules. We’re always revising, always doing triage, always trying to keep up with the maddening, conflicting demands of this modern alien environment. And in this world, the very idea of a rational, linear, sequential health and lifestyle prescription seems dead on arrival. I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but from where I sit, chaos is the status quo. My life is a wicked, exciting, maddening, beautiful mess.

Try as we might, it is both impossible and counter-productive to force the flow of our lives into neat, linear sequences, pigeon holes and spreadsheets. There’s simply too much going on. Kids, parents, dogs, employers and colleagues are constantly in motion, following their own agendas and turning our best laid plans into a scramble for sanity. You know this full well. Have you ever tried adding up all the essential and recommended hours that we’re supposed to spend on life’s tasks each day? So many hours for sleep, so many hours for work, so many hours for exercise and so on? By my conservative count, it comes out to be way, way more than 24. There’s simply too much to be done.

If you’re a professional athlete, you might be able to avoid messy realities of the modern world and keep your training on a narrow, disciplined track. You can organize your workouts, your food and your rest periods into strictly regimented, periodized boxes. You might even have a team of professional handlers who are paid to keep the real world at bay so you can concentrate all of your energy on your sport. But professional athletes live in an alternative universe that is largely irrelevant to the real-world demands that most of us have to face each day. Most of us have to take the chaos head-on.

As trainers, teachers and health-care professionals, we often fail to honor the inherent dynamism of modern life. Likewise, we fail to teach the most essential lifestyle skill of all: the meta-ability to integrate the dynamic, chaotic flow of life’s events. At our best, we allow for some slack in our prescriptions, but rarely do we teach people the most fundamental skill: how to organize the chaos of modern life into a coherent and meaningful whole.

This is where we turn, not to exercise science or lifestyle psychology, but to art. The artistic process provides an essential, appropriate and practical model for learning to live in the midst of chaos. Art, after all, is a very messy business, filled with inspirations and compromises, chance discoveries and unexpected opportunities. The challenge is the same in all cases: take the medium at hand, study its characteristics, engage your body and turn it into something meaningful and perhaps beautiful.

In the arts, a medium is any material used by an artist or designer to create a work. Clay, paint, canvas, charcoal, sound… the possibilities are obviously endless. Each medium has its own characteristics, challenges and rewards, but the specifics are largely irrelevant. What the artistic process actually teaches us is a bigger lesson about creativity, adaptability and judgment calls in the face of partial knowledge and control. In other words, our lives.

In this sense, health care professionals might well think of themselves first and foremost as art teachers. Personal trainers, coaches, therapists, medical professionals; all of us are engaged in the process of showing people the possibilities for creation under duress. We’re teaching a process, an attitude and an orientation. After all, everyone knows the basics; health and medical information is available to anyone with an Internet connection. What people really need is guidance in putting it all together in the midst of chaos.

So throw away your perfect spreadsheets and your perfect calculations for a perfect life. Instead, show people how to move their bodies in the sub-optimal conditions of their working lives. Show people how to make better food choices when plans go sideways and there’s nothing in the refrigerator. Show people how to calm down when the to-do list is multiplying like a renegade virus.

Film maker Woody Allen once spoke about his casual working style, describing himself as “an imperfectionist.” This strikes me as a powerful, practical approach. Instead of forcing our lives into grids, boxes and linear sequences, we learn to engage the mess on its own terms, molding it, sculpting it, crafting it and living it into some new and more pleasing form. In this sense, art is the ultimate path to health.