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Slowly Balancing Our Goals and Lives

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Philosophers have never been known for speed. You can't go that fast in a toga, or a tweed jacket. We take our time. A professor at Yale once explained to me that for centuries German philosophers tended to write three volume tomes on any give topic because it took the first book just to clear their throats - and the third to contain their verbs. Even their sentences could be slow to get to the point.

In fact, it was one of the ancient thinkers who, I'm sure, very slowly composed the original and famous story of the tortoise and the hare. We know who won in the end.

So, when I go out to jog for exercise, fresh air, and sunshine, I never aim to set any speed records. I'm in no hurry. Today, a friend called out to me from his front lawn, "Hey, are you walking or running?" I shouted back, "I couldn't decide which to do, so I split the difference." He commented further, "We should get someone to check your speed with a radar gun." I laughed and thought, "Yeah, then they'd want to check my pulse."

During the jog, I was thinking deep thoughts. I'm often philosophizing as I move. That can slow me down to the point where a motion sensitive, self-winding watch won't even wind. I thought about taking a stopwatch with me this morning, but knew it would just stop.

At the holiest spot in ancient Greece, the Oracle at Delphi, there were two pieces of advice carved in stone: "Know Thyself" and "Nothing in Excess." Both can be surprisingly hard to follow.

I used to think the whole point of running was speed. Now I know it can have other purposes. When I was younger, I did everything fast and most things in excess. I didn't really know myself. And I had no concept of too much. Now I strive for more balance, and a proper pace. In the old days, if I ran at all, I had to run in races. And I thought about trying a marathon until the first time I crossed the ten-mile mark at an actual run and my kneecaps caught on fire. It wasn't hard to understand the plight of Pheidippides, the ancient Greek who, legend tells us, ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to report the outcome - "We won" - then dropped dead. This did not seem to bode well for a race named after the event, and yet many of us persist. I now choose to jog daily at a more thoughtful pace and over more reasonable distances.

I'm slowly learning to set goals with a measure of moderation, and to balance them better across different dimensions of my life. In the seventeenth century, the scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal observed that human life involves three levels: The Physical - the level of the body; The Intellectual - the level of the mind; and The Spiritual - the level of what he metaphorically called "the heart," a domain that encompasses the emotions and deeper connections we experience in life.

Pascal hoped we would not ignore any of these basic levels of our existence in the way we live. Our personal goal setting should encompass and involve them all. We need to exercise our bodies, minds, and spirits. We need physical goals, intellectual goals, and spiritual or emotional aims for our own greatest flourishing. And no goals should be set on any level, or pursued in such a way, as to ignore, disrespect, or damage our lives on one or another of these distinct levels. We ought to evaluate anything we do in terms of everything else. We do better to balance our personal goals across the three levels of our existence, and within those levels. Anything else threatens to violate both inscriptions at Delphi.

So I jog in a way and at a pace that's right for my stage in life, level of fitness, and various personal goals. I may never impress the neighbors but I want to enhance the quality and, unlike Pheidippides, the quantity of my life with my physical activity, whether on the road or in a weight room, or anywhere else. And I want to think, feel, and connect up things across the different levels of my existence while doing so. In my youth - OK, actually, up until fairly recently - I was always in a hurry. And that created habits that have been hard to break. But life isn't the Battle of Marathon, and there are no Athenians waiting for me to sprint to them with urgent news. So I can occasionally slow down, and take my time, even when I'm jogging. So can you.

My advice to you, then, is simple: Balance your goals. Know when to take your time. Know yourself. Do nothing in excess. And if you go out to jog, feel completely free to go at your own rhythm, however slow it might seem. There's no need to be embarrassed. You have nothing to prove. Tell people you're philosophizing and they'll leave you alone. Or better yet, wear a toga and they won't even think to notice your pace.