The Slow Burn of Aging and the Promise of Physical Labor

I know, I know. That is a very dramatic title for what is, in essence, a pretty lighthearted subject. Recently I have had a lot of vague stress. You know the kind, right? You’re bothered/worried/anxious but you can’t figure out exactly why. Sometimes it just nags at you until it goes away, usually with the accomplishing of some goal or a day of complete rest or some other mental obstacle being successfully negotiated. Sometimes it sticks around for a long time. And then there are the magical moments when you figure out what’s bothering you and you figure out what you can do about it.

This last, magical moment is one I experienced recently, and I think it’s important to talk about it a little bit, so here we are.

The Slow Burn of Aging

I am 32 years old. I am married, I have a mortgage, I have owned by own law firm (with my business partner) since October 2020, I am tremendously out of shape, and I started this website in November as a creative outlet. I had not really considered all of those things together before. But then something weird happened: Spicy food began to rebel on me.

How are those things connected? Well, I feel old. Ancient, even. I have felt old at almost every age (because, to be fair, every day is the oldest I’ve ever been), but lately there have been more signs. Soreness from sleeping wrong, listening to more talk radio in the car, soreness from golf, forgetting the names of people I knew when I was a kid, memories of different family events starting to meld together, and waking up in cold sweats because I have nightmares about retirement. But the spicy food is really what got me.

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I used to LOVE spicy food. I wanted every meal to be a challenge. I considered any dinner that didn’t result in sweat and possibly even tears to be a meal wasted. But several years ago, the food began to rebel. At first it was just feeling bloated after a meal. Then it was my tolerance going down; where once I could garnish a meal with diced habanero, now I pretty much quit using anything stronger than a jalapeno. Then it was going from Diablo Sauce down to Fire Sauce at Taco Bell. Then it was more severe gastrointestinal distress. But the final straw happened a few months ago: I realized that if I had spicy food after about noon that I had to take Pepto Bismol and chew some Tums or else I wouldn’t be able to sleep. Ugh. So awful.

And with that, I went from feeling like a man who was a little bit older than his physical age to a man who was in his thirties mentally but in his seventies physically. But the good news is that I have found a way to help combat that.

The Promise of Physical Labor

I grew up in a blue collar family. My parents own a nursery and I spent a sizeable chunk of my formative years out there helping out. Filling flats, planting plants, loading and unloading (and later driving) delivery trucks, welding, weedeating, building greenhouses, pouring concrete and asphalt, and generally doing a lot of physical work and not a lot of mental work.

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Now, I’m a lawyer. I spent three years in law school focusing on making myself a better mental worker, and in the four years (to the day, by complete coincidence!) since I took the bar exam, I’ve been making a living exclusively with my mind. Sure, I tried to work out regularly (and failed), but mostly I’ve lived an unfortunately sedentary lifestyle over the past several years.

Even when I was working out more, it didn’t feel like a physical release. Sure, I would feel a little better and generally would be better about eating healthier on the days I worked out, but largely it just felt like something I was forced to do to keep me from getting any fatter. Then I bought a house and the yardwork began. I love yardwork. I’ve written about my love of yardwork here, here, here, and here. The venerable Blaze Fyre has also written about the love of yardwork here. In other words, we here at Cosas Totum are no strangers to yardwork and the great feeling that comes with it. Hell, I’m already planning on mowing my lawn this afternoon when I get off work.

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But yardwork isn’t all that difficult. Sometimes what we need is very strenuous physical labor that results in some tangible progress. Repairing a fence, more extensive yardwork like tilling and planting, cleaning gutters, repairing other things around the house, and even deep-cleaning your living space are all great ways to break a sweat and see a tangible result. It’s so satisfying. A lot of office work doesn’t have that tangible result when you’re finished with it, and that can be disappointing, especially over time. There is some sort of catharsis in physical labor. Taking a step back and admiring your handy work is good for the soul. And a lot of physical labor is fairly mindless, so it’s a good way to clear your mind, too.

Intangible Results

Of course, the results of your labor should be seen pretty quickly. It doesn’t take much to look at your freshly manicured lawn or the repaired fence. But the intangible results are what really keep you going. Accomplishing something like that makes your soul feel good. It makes you feel young because not everyone can mend a fence or repair drywall or whatever. It feels great to make a repair to your home even if you’ve never done it before. Just get on YouTube to find a tutorial, go to Ace Hardware to get what you need, and get to work. Even if it’s not as nice as a professional would have gotten it, that’s okay.

And then there’s the physical soreness. I know when I have a day full of grueling physical labor, I enjoy the soreness the next day. It’s not the same type of soreness as lifting weights. Sure, it’s soreness in muscles, but there’s a different type of satisfaction there. All day you will walk around with a slight limp and wince every time you have to turn a certain way, but you can do it all with a smile because you know you’re that sore because of how hard you worked. It’s a great system.

So here are my final thoughts: We live in a world that is stressful. Just existing is stressful. It is. And it doesn’t matter how privileged or oppressed you are, you will feel a tremendous amount of stress in your lifetime. Sure, some more than others, and I would never try to say that Kim Kardashian has more stress in her life than a single mother of three trying to work two minimum wage jobs just to keep food on the table, because that’s just not true. But we all have a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety about a lot of things. And if you’re one of those people, like me, who has an office job and a fair amount of semi-existential anxiety, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is some good, old-fashioned physical labor. Think of Peter from the end of Office Space. He took a construction job and was happier than he had been at his office job. I’m not recommending a drastic change like that, but just consider doing some hard physical work every once in a while. And if you don’t have enough of that to do at your own home you can volunteer at Habitat for Humanity or volunteer to pick up trash on the highway or something. There is work to be done if only you want to do it.

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