Excess Energy

I just got back from my Zumba fitness class. I always tell myself that I love this; that there is nothing better than the physicality of being in my body.

In truth, when I’m hopping and jumping to that techno beat, red-faced, out of breath, sweat trickling down my nose, peeing a little bit in my pants with each jump (because that’s how it is after two pregnancies), all I want is for the clock to move ahead to the end of class so that I can take a shower and sit down with a cup of coffee. The only things that keeps me going are my pride and my survival instinct: I need to prove to my 18-year-old classmates that even though I’m old enough to be their mother, I’m not yet ready to be discounted. But sometimes when my physical energy is low, also my mental energy gives out. I can no longer muster the discipline to keep my thoughts upbeat and purposeful, I start measuring things at a cosmic scale, and before I know it I’m questioning the whole enterprise of human civilization as vanity and chasing after wind.

This morning, for example, while straining to keep up with the synchronized boob jiggling and pelvic grinding, I was suddenly overcome by an overwhelming sense futility.  Here we were, enacting primordial mating rituals in the sterile setting of a university gym to burn enough calories to spend the rest of the day sitting at a desk. I  had a clear vision of human civilization as a frantic project of burning excess energy. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors used up most of their energy just in the struggle for daily survival, with, in times of abundance, maybe some energy left for mating dances and procreation. But the more progress we make in gathering and storing energy, the more elaborate ways we need to find to use it all up. There is something obscene about building a gym the size of a small village just so that this communities of sedentary students, professors, and office workers can burn their excess energy in swimming pools, on indoor running tracks, at exercise machines, or in aerobics classes.

After my zumba class, I had scheduled an interview with a professor of Engineering design about whom I’m writing an article. One quote that particularly stood out for me was: “Design is a fundamentally optimistic way of thinking. There’s always the assumption that things can be improved.”

I’m an incorrigible skeptic, so my immediate thought was: “Improved towards what?”

For millions of years now, humans having been improving things, at an ever-accelerating pace. I am indeed grateful for hospitals, computers, electricity, telephones, cars, bicycles, schools, books, musical instruments, stoves, refrigerators and everything else that allows me to live in comfort, pleasure, and health. But sometimes it seems to me that the more convenient our life becomes, the more difficult it is to fill it in meaningfully. Maybe, ultimately, the greatest contentment can still be found in the physicality of being in your body. As I’m writing this, I’m watching my cat chase after a bumblebee. She slinks through the grass like a wild tiger, and then leaps up in a somersault to surprise her prey mid flight. She seems to be perfectly happy.