One of the problems never solved on my former road bike, the Felt 4C, was a difficulty in getting the chain to move from the small ring to the big ring. The derailleur was Dura-Ace and the setup was quality Shimano. So it wasn’t the quality of the equipment. Mechanics and friends fussed with the gearing but it never quite felt clean when shifting into the bigger ring. It would pause or slip off at crucial moments.
Which made riding difficult, especially cresting a big hill and heading down the other side. Fussing with gear changes at increasing speed, or trying to glance down and see what’s happening was never safe.
There are no such problems with the new Specialized Venge Expert. Shifting is second nature.
And so goes the allegory for life in general. There seem to be times in life when change comes easy. We find a new job or make other life changes and things proceed smoothly. Perhaps we even pick up speed. Put some money in the bank and retirement.
Other times life seems to slip right off the gears. A relationship gets off track, or falls apart completely. Loved ones from grandparents to parents, friends or even spouses pass away. Grief is a sticky substance. It can cause your emotional gears to lock in one place. The stages are familiar. Shock. Denial and Isolation. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance.
Except these stages don’t always come along in that order. Some people move into some sort of state of acceptance right away because life demands it. Then the other stages pop up as time goes on. Sometimes this takes years. People wonder what’s going on. Why is anger suddenly a part of life? Or depression. What are we denying?
It happens with divorce and job loss. It happens with the emotional letdown after a big event. Even success can throw you right off the big ring on the Bike of Life. Completing an Ironman, for example, can leave one with a void in life where once the training and commitment filled the days, there is nothing. What now? Who am I? Why do I feel so goddamned mortal?
Our super intentions are often responsible for the slipping gears of life. Highly successful people appear on the surface not to suffer this problem. They give the appearance that their lives are complete and in order. Their personal brands gleam with intention and achievement.
But be not fooled. Even successful people have those “chain slipped off the gearing” moments now and then. There is no such thing as a perfect human being. We could group the categories of gear slippage as well. There are five clear areas where the gears slip for most people:
- Relationships and family
- Worldview and faith
- Self-esteem and respect
One could argue that these categories are upside down in some respect. But let’s look at them foundationally. Perhaps everything in life starts with a recognition of mortality.
Perhaps everything in life starts with a recognition of mortality. Yet this aspect of life is perhaps the most frequently denied aspect of human existence. Our mortal fears too often haunt us rather than fueling our love of love of life. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Next on the list is self-esteem and respect. And we find that the world’s religions try really hard to keep these gears on track. The Christian faith tells its followers that God Loves You and Jesus Loves You. Those are direct appeals to personal esteem and self- respect. People who feel loved tend to thrive. Yet those who deny religion find these qualities in other places. So there is no set formula. You can ride in essentially the same gear in the middle of both large and small chain-rings.
Which leads us to character, or how we value and conduct ourselves in the context of society. And like the gears on a bike, character can change in the face of life challenges. A life-threatening disease is a test of character, yet so is an injury during training for a big race. These are challenges of different natures and degrees, yet they are both real. They test, define, refine and emerge in our character.
From character we move to the broader concept of worldview. That is the foundational set of beliefs that inform one’s perspective about everything from the structure of the universe to the leaning of our politics.
Many things inform a person’s worldview, but what really greases the chain in one direction or the other is the culture in which one is raised. That is the “chain lubricant” that makes things feel like they pull in the same direction. Yet there are times in life when that chain can go dry. People have their worldview tested when they go off to college, for example, or enter the work world for the first time.
Which means people can get lost when they realize their worldview is exposed or proven wrong in some way. Then the stages of panic and grief can kick in. The chain of life slips and even falls off at times. These are tests of personal faith which can lead to a wholesale personal tuneup.
People who go through alcoholism or other addictions know how wrenching this experience can be. The same tests daily afflict those who suffer from anxiety or depression. Mental illness is not so much a personal flaw as it is a deep connection to one’s sense of mortality. That is why so many great artists and works of art come from deeply ruminative places. If you want an immersion in the raw mortality and insight of life, go get yourself a book of Charles Bukowski’s poetry.
Yet at some point, one’s worldview needs to be filled back in through some means of support. Otherwise one’s connections with mortality become a risk.
Like it or not, most human beings grapple with the challenges of a career. Our working lives or vocation are expressions of who we are. This can be transplanted, of course, into avocation, and many athletes find satisfaction in this regard. Their personalities become immersed in a sport and that becomes an identity. But when injury or other circumstance knocks that chain off the gears, life can get complicated. Friend networks get strained, and even spousal relationships when one person continues in the sport and the other is forced to the sidelines. Humility is important in getting one’s “career” back on track in any case. But so is a solid sense of personal pride and recognition of individual value. Those are some of the hardest attributes to keep on track in the face of career loss. But it’s crucial to survival in every sense.
Which brings us, in the end, to this notion of mortality and mortal fears. No matter what stage in life we currently reside, the single fact defining us all is the reality that death will someday come. Never mind notions of heaven and eternal life. We’re talking about existing here on earth or not. It is the idea of ceasing to exist that makes life seem strange when you stop pedaling for a moment and think about it. I remember the first time I rode a bike with gears and was able to “pedal backwards” without bringing the bike to a halt. it felt so counterintuitive that I felt like flying. That moment is just like the Zen notion that life itself is an illusion. This idea that we’re locked into pumping the pedals and driving our gears all the time? That’s an illusion too.
When the Beatles George Harrison and John Lennon first experienced LSD, the so-called “mind expanding” drug, they very nearly freaked out. Yet out of those experiences came music that communicated the idea that life itself is not all gears and drive train motivations. Consider the lyrics of the song Tomorrow Never Knows…
Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing…
This is a dreamy yet patently real call to step outside our mortal fears (our grinding gears) and engage in the eternal philosophy of existence. Re: Let’s all pedal backwards for a bit and let the bike roll on its own. Find a hill and coast.
In life, that might mean your backyard with trees wafting in the breeze, or next to a river, where flecks of light shimmer off the surface.Or watch some clouds form and move past. Let the gears of existence move without your effort and you may well find yourself moving in new directions.
This summer I never put a bike computer on my Specialized. I rode simply how I felt each day. Some days that was fast and strong. Other days I rode for enjoyment and never worried about the pace. And you know what? Frequently there was very little difference between the two. Our struggles sometimes reap little benefit. Obsessing about money does not necessarily bring any more your way. Or love. Or hope.
Much less fear. One might think it the worst thing possible that I drove my car into the garage with the road bike on the roof. Yet the money needed to buy a new bike appeared and it has been a liberating year in many respects. It’s time to start pedaling in new directions, and while it’s not always easy, it helps to understand the gearing a bit better.