Our Slow Retreat

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The descent is slow. The degradation imperceptible. Step by step, we move closer each day toward insidious comfort. We’re drawn to the warmth of the blanket, the placid serenity of zero effort, and the restful slumber of tensionless existence.

The day was beautiful. The deep blue sky was dotted with those big, fluffy clouds that portend Fall’s cool touch as sunshine cascaded over the explosion of colors rippling across tree tops. Feeling inspired, I decided to break a sweat on the spin bike I had casually avoided for a week or two.

The warmup felt nice, comfortably easing me into increasing exertion. Five minutes in and my heart rate was up, paralleling slightly elevated breathing. As I shifted into a five minute acceleration, my heart rate jumped, my breathing became labored, and my legs became heavy. At 12 minutes in, I decided that the discomfort seemed unpleasant enough to stop.

Twelve minutes. Typically, a spin ride for me goes for 45 minutes complete with joyful exertion and the sweat that accompanies it. I thought, “what’s up with that?” Maybe I’ve got a touch of something. Perhaps it’s COVID. (Yeah, we all go there first.) Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. What did I have for lunch? Maybe I was low on fuel. Maybe.

Or, maybe I just needed to push through the discomfort of exertion brought upon me because I hadn’t done any cardio in the last 10 days.


  • I don’t believe exercise needs to be painful
  • I believe you should listen to your body
  • We all need to know ourselves, our capabilities, our limitations, and our inclinations.

What struck me about this moment was my desire for comfort. The exertion wasn’t painful. It was uncomfortable. The discomfort was one with which I am quite familiar. It’s the one that hides on the slippery, downward slope of inactivity. The one that hides behind the slothful “I don’t wanna.”

Our lives are marked by an ongoing tug of war between our motivated selves and that side of us that would rather not. There is a tension between what we want done and our willingness to exert ourselves in any particular direction. All action has a price tag attached to it and we unconsciously do a silent return-on-investment analysis before we apply ourselves, asking “Is this worth the effort?”

Exercise is just one place in which we play this game. Consider physical labor. Our yards are a battleground. Do we spread our own mulch or hire someone else? Do we mow? Do we trim trees and bushes? Wouldn’t a garden be nice? I recently saw a neighbor receive a truckload of rocks and winced as I imagined the effort to spread them in the low maintenance beds he had contrived around his home. A few weeks later, the rock pile sits on his driveway as he undoubtedly continues to fight the internal battle between cost and exertion.

There is a very real danger when we shrink from exertion. Remember the adage, “what you don’t use, you lose”? Those days of youthful exertion first fall to the worldly distractions of young adulthood, then the prioritizations of our family years, and finally to the comfort-seeking affectations of middle age and beyond. The slippery slope of energy conservation, disinterest, and self-indulgence render once capable physical capacities to the history of our bygone years. We wake up one day huffing and puffing as we push a wheelbarrow of rocks across our driveway wondering “what was I thinking?”

The insidious loss of physical vitality is only part of the calamity which occurs when we shrink from exertion. Sloth can appear in all aspects of our existence. When did you last read a book? On what project are you currently working? To whom did you most recently write a letter? How much time a week do you dedicate to thinking? How often do you pray or meditate? Curiously, the less we do of anything, the less we are inclined to do. And eventually, the less we are able to do.

For 2020, pandemic has introduced us to an entirely new class of indolence. As we’ve bobbed along on lockdowns, social distancing, and the associated fear and uncertainty, we’ve closed entire aspects of our existence. Many stopped going to church because of the lockdowns. When things started to reopen, fear kept them away. It is likely that many won’t return.

We see this pattern repeating itself. What about going out to eat? Restaurants are closing in massive numbers indicating that many of us have chosen not to return. What are the next societal casualties of pandemic? Museums? Movie theaters? Concerts? Sporting events? Travel? Initially, we adjusted for safety concerns. However, after our initial reduction in effort, it has become much easier not to return. The less we try, the easier it becomes not to try. Perhaps some things should be jettisoned. Are you intentionally choosing which are left behind or just letting it happen?

Finally, we arrive at the ultimate casualty of our diminishing exertions: relationships. Pandemic notwithstanding, it seems that the easiest, and most insidious, place we retreat is in our relationships. The thing we need the most is also the most demanding. Throughout our lives we run toward and then away from relationships, at first in equal measures until tipping toward retreat in our later years as we turn more and more inward.

The dramatic moments marking our attraction to or rejection of relationships are easy to understand. A more subtle danger lies in the slow-death of meaningful affections brought on by lack of effort. In our slow retreat from exertion toward others, we see connections dissipate in the fading light of a former fire left to die with no additional fuel. The less we engage, the faster it fades.

The descent is slow. The degradation imperceptible. Step by step, we move closer each day toward insidious comfort. We’re drawn to the warmth of the blanket, the placid serenity of zero effort, and the restful slumber of tensionless existence.

For your life, consider what it means to not shrink from exertion. See it in the little things first. Then, imagine investing your efforts in the larger things. Consider the implications in the absence of those things you are willing to let go. Your passions, ideas, and energies will dissipate as quickly as the relationships you cast aside if you don’t guard them, invest in them, and steward them possessively.

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