I bent over my arm, willing the dumbbell to my shoulder in the last repetition of a set of concentration curls. I was working out in mid-summer in Gainesville, Florida. Sweat was pouring down my body. Denise and our house guest pulled into the driveway. I remarked that I was almost done with my workout and that I just needed to do another couple of sets of curls. Our guest’s reply was at once questioning, provocative, and challenging: “Why?”
I was unprepared to answer questions directed at first principles. I had left the security of the Marine Corps in search of a better life for my family and had undertaken the most intellectually challenging endeavor of my life: succeed in electrical engineering at the University of Florida and begin a career. Why? Because it was incumbent on me to see to the well-being of my wife and daughter and provide them with an array of opportunities for personal growth. To meet this challenge, as I saw it, it was necessary to perfect myself. “Mens sana in corpore sano.” The first step in being a husband and father was to be as healthy as possible. Health is the foundation for academic and professional excellence. Fitness is the foundation of health.
I had inherited the belief in a chain of responsibilities. As far into my past as I could remember, my mother had taught me that self-worth and intellectual worth were profoundly connected. I first heard the words “Noblesse oblige” from her. She taught me that the value of self-worth lies in the opportunity it grants its owners to help those who depend on them. First comes direct family, then those with whom we come in contact, and, ultimately our society, our nation, and the human race. I grew up in this paradigm. Years later, in college while taking Classical Philosophy, I was introduced to Epictetus via the Enchiridion. I have kept the cheap course paperback at every desk that I have worked from. Epictetus introduced me to Marcus Aurelius. The Stoics have an unquestioning sense of the order of the universe and of society. To them, society is made up of the patterns of duty and responsibility individuals have between each other, their families and Rome. The Corps underscored this world view with its emphasis on the “warrior ethos”, its elevation of its symbol of eagle, globe, and anchor, and its honor for “Corps and Country”. I have vexed many a mentor over the decades by not understanding the words “What would you like to do?” I have only really been able to parse “What, given your talents and needs around you, should you do?”
The challenge of “Why” I should finish those sets lingers after almost 40 years. At 65, my responsibilities to family have all been largely executed. I proselytized the value of education to wife, before she went to college, and daughter. Now, I am the only one in the family who does not have a masters. Both are well ensconced in careers that are more lucrative than my own. Why do I train now? A couple of years ago, as we were throwing ourselves down a trail in Maryland Heights across the Potomac from Harper’s Ferry, we passed a couple who asked “What are you training for?” The only response that popped out was “We’re training for life!” But there is another, more telling way to phrase it: I train because the alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
Yet, responsibility and duty still remain. I have for the first time started considering retirement at 65, as I sat in isolation from work for most of 2020. My Social Security retirement age is 66 and two months. Why is this relevant? Social Security is the United States’ social contract with the elderly. The contract is simple. You work a lifetime and contribute to the well-being of the older generation. When you become old, the current generations of work force will take care of your well-being. This is fair. With the demise of the tribe and the village, their patterns of support for the aged disappeared. The nuclear family is not equal to the task. It is ironic that the person counsels me the most to retire now is the same who asked “Why” when I expressed my need to finish my concentration curls. But I believe that any society who does not care for its young, its old, and its needy is in a state of barbarism. The U.S. Social Security System is facing severe financial short falls, in large part because people are not working as long and living longer. They are collecting more and contributing less from the Social Security System. I believe it is the duty and responsibility of every U.S. citizen to contribute to their allocated time. Few now, seem to understand the sentiment. When JFK spoke the words “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” an entire nation understood.