Cycling brings out the Stoic in me.
Last time I wrote about the therapeutic value of crying, but more often than that cycling has the effect of hardening my soul against whatever the world can hurl at me.
I have often found myself cycling in freezing cold weather, in the pouring rain, hardly able to make out the road ahead. Or passing road signs telling me that there are more miles ahead of me than I thought. Then there’s crunching through the gears, and standing up on the pedals to pull myself up a hill. Instead of battering me into submission, the swirling weather is a foe to be ridden through to earn the warm torrents of acclaim that only a hot shower and a cup of tea can bring on reaching my destination. It’s the satisfaction of holding the road through hostile elements.
Why, then, do I fail to cope with the bone-chilling temperatures and the bleak drizzle that depression brings, when I relish the challenge of bad weather when I’m on my bike riding across the Sussex hills?
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 C.E.) wrote : ‘Let it make no difference to you if you are cold or warm, so long as you are doing your duty’.
Why then do I regard cycling long distances in bad weather as akin to a duty, and falter so badly with my moods during the summer? The author of Meditations wouldn’t have much time for the likes of me with views like this: ‘Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres’
But did he have a point? For what it’s worth, I think it is quite an achievement to have ridden nigh on 50 miles with a broken arm (Capital to Coast Charity Bike Ride 2003). I cannot deny the special satisfaction of peeling off wet cycling kit and stumbling into the shower. I once even read a book with the title ‘One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers’ – a paean to cycling in the 1950s and 60s by Tim Hilton.
So does endurance sport offer a depressive like me something more than tears can? Does Stoicism, putting up with whatever life throws at you, have something to offer that a good cry simply can’t match?
The first Stoic philosopher that I ever heard of (I must have been about twelve at the time) made me smile. His name was Seneca (c. 1 B.C.E – 65 C.E.), and it sounded just like the name of the school in Kent where my parents both worked (Senacre) (1967 – 1974 C.E.). Although it was decades before I knew anything other than his name, he had some interesting things to say. For example: ‘A man’s as miserable as he thinks he is.’ By which I take it he meant that it’s up to us to decide how we feel. This is a thoroughly contemporary approach known these days as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (C.B.T.), a relatively quick, and therefore inexpensive, approach to helping people think their way out of depression. I am not convinced that a person who is severely depressed can benefit from this kind of treatment, however. The sheer weight and blur of a mood disorder makes the act of thinking a herculean effort, and one which requires untold amounts of rest in its aftermath, to make such Reflective Arts worthwhile.
But Seneca did understand that there are no quick fixes, and, as with cycling, perpetual motion is the only way to keep moving forward. ‘As long as you live, keep learning how to live.’
The Road Less Travelled
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost (1874-1963)