This morning at the gym I did something completely unexpected – I took off my headphones. The world came rushing in from all around me and I found myself having a TEDx Moment in multiples. By “TEDx Moment” I’m referring to the moment of bright insight that often accompanies the experience of listening to or watching a TEDx presentation.
I started going to the gym in ernest about four years ago shortly after my, then 90 year old mother, Marie, had a stroke and survived. The stoke affected my mother’s mobility and her ability to speak. Her comprehension, however, remained intact. We decided to care for my mom at home. Thus began a journey that has altered the lives of everyone in our family. (I’ll get back to the headphone in a moment.)
For my part, I became the go-to-guy for getting mom out of bed. This required a straight vertical learning curve that included sessions with physical therapists, Hoyer Lift manuals, intense and helpful suggestions from siblings, and direct feedback from my mother. The demands of Marie’s care required me to develop my capacities and skills in physical strength, flexibility and my mental focus. The risks were high. The margin for error was zero. A mistake on my part could easily cost my mother her life.
It was with this sense of irreducible purpose that I put on my headphones four years ago and dove into the world at my gym. The time I had available to me for working out was minimal so I was all business when I arrived at the front door. I didn’t see the place as communal at all. I saw it as a school of strength and how-to. I saw it as access to the power I needed to hold my mother up, carry her if needed, keep her safe and mobile. There was nothing else on my mind.
I spoke to no one. No one spoke to me. I had my headphones on. Occasionally there would be an exchange of glances or a smile. I’d smile back, nod, motion hello. I was surrounded by people whose faces I could easily recall but none of them had names or histories. We never shook hands and introduced ourselves. I figured people who show up for an hour everyday, at the break of dawn, had their own life and death reasons. And there wasn’t anytime to talk about it.
So, this morning, the headphones stopped working and I took them off. Almost immediately a guy I’ve seen for four years came up to me and introduced himself. Our three minute conversation was far-reaching and rich and full of details. He explained that nobody knows for sure when the Aqueduct of Segovia, Spain, was built? It is made of granite blocks without mortar. He said, “The joints are so perfectly fitted you can’t get a piece of paper between them.” He pantomimed the action of holding a piece of paper in his own hand and trying to slide it back and forth into an invisible slot in front of me. I realized he had actually tried this when he was there.
I found one of my fellow soccer officials. He has broken almost as many bones as Evel Knievel. He was describing his most recent surgery for repair to the tendons in his lower leg. He mentioned wires and screws all because of a spirited game of ultimate frisbee. This guy is big and strong with a gentle disposition. He talks eloquently about pain: “It’s not so bad.”
For the first time I heard the voices of people I’ve seen countless times. No one sounded like themselves. (I was surprised to find out that somehow I had come up with the sound of each person’s voice in my own head without ever confirming my hunches.) I discovered the guy at the front desk has a family, and kids, and everything else. (I always thought of him as a dedicated bachelor.) The powerful swimmers emerging from the pool were discussing technique and used phrases like, “My weakest link.” Mothers were staying fit while pregnant. Heart attack victims were rebuilding the capacity of their hearts. The woman next to me on the mat described in detail the difficulty of gaining an honest inch during a hamstring stretch.
I was awed. I don’t know if I was completely oblivious to all this before this morning? But, by taking my headphones off, for one day, by going headphoneless, I invited the world in. I didn’t even know I had shut the world out. I didn’t know that headphones were code for “leave me alone”. I guess while I was so absorbed by my own steep learning curve I didn’t take into account that I wasn’t alone and that I was actually surrounded by people embracing their own steep learning curves. And, in doing so, each person was bringing wisdom into their lives.
Quietly, under headphones, I had visually picked up pointers on form and how to refine my approach to strength and flexibility. The gym is a very visual place and if you are observant you can learn a lot. But now, with my ears unblocked, the stories being told all around me came spilling out across the floor. Two things: The first is I recognized almost immediately that every single person at the gym is trying to solve problems. The stories they tell are filled with solution finding, fixing things, making things better. I thought, “This is crazy. Everybody looking for something they can’t find should come to my gym.” And, of course, quickly I was able to see that this isn’t just happening at my gym. It is happening everywhere people get together.
Which brings me to the second thing: If you are problem solving you are activating an empathetic core in you. I can’t really explain what I’m talking about here except to say that I found myself with tears in my eyes while walking out to the parking lot. It was as if I just suddenly woke up somewhere where I belonged. And the belonging didn’t mean that I had to agree with everybody. The belonging didn’t mean that I had to have the answers or even the questions. I just needed to gently connect, get a quick pointer on a stretch for my triceps, overhear someone being practical and brilliant without the need or desire to broadcast it.
I’m not sure that I actually woke up completely. I think it is happening to me gradually, little by little, one moment at a time. I’ve seen this in my work with Rebecca. I saw this sort of thing when we put red chairs on Monument Circle last week. People moved into those chairs, owned them for an hour, and breathed differently. I got a glimpse of it two weeks ago when I was visiting the IMA and saw an old friend coming up the escalator as I was going down. Midway in the Irwin light sculpture we made eye contact, shook hands, as the escalators pulled us apart. We lingered in our exchange. It seems to me that people in Indy are learning how to stick a little to each other. It’s as if each of us is rediscovering this lost art of being-in-a-place-with-others on his or her own terms.
For my part I think I’ll show up at the gym again tomorrow with my headphones back on. But I’m pretty sure I won’t wait four years to take them off again.