The Habit of Progress
Last Monday night, I jogged up the Hudson River from Battery Park to the Christopher Street Pier, pier 45, in the New York City neighborhood of Chelsea . Even though I spent fifteen minutes on preparatory stretches, my leg muscles were tight throughout the run. I have succumbed to a cyclical start and stop habit of jogging. This practice begins with a short run on a particular day, usually a day I feel bloated, plump or distant from youth, and I will jog the next day and throughout the remainder of the week. I will feel good, then I will feel strong, and then, as my distance and speed improves, my muscles will feel the strain of the week’s workout and become sore. I will attempt to push myself through the tenderness, only to reacquaint myself with a familiar fatigue. Under the rationale of recovery, I will rest. I will rest until the moment I feel old, chubby, and glum.
On the pier, I felt that accustomed fatigue approaching and I recognized what is likely to come tomorrow. At the pier’s end, I decided to stretch my front thigh, so I grabbed the aluminum railing with one hand, lifted the opposite leg backward and then grabbed that foot with the other hand. I switched sides, and then after, I changed postures to work my inner thighs and calf muscles.
Then, I looked down into the Hudson River. Its current swirled with urgent pace, and its swells were rising and falling like a breath of air in a human lung. I turned off the Cher dance remix on my IPhone, put the earbuds in my pocket, and listened to the water smack against the pier’s concrete pillars. The water moved, and I remembered the South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada.
On Tuesday, March 28, I woke up in Cape Town exhausted, my muscles were tight, and my mood deeply undesirable, perhaps depressed. I had preferred to curl up in the fetal position, pull the blanket over my head and let the day disappear. I could recover from exhaustion, forget the taxes I owe, and brushoff the nasty fleabites on my foot. I could waste those twenty-five dollars I had spent for that day’s reserved ticket to Robben Island. I would not miss much, I thought.
Then, from the kitchen, I heard a frenetic mumble on the BBC Radio that quickly turned into loud chatter. Ahmed Kathrada died. He was 87.
Kathrada’s absence catapulted the country into mourning and created the opportunity to reflect on the ideals of freedom and his dream of a non-racial and non-sexist democratic South Africa. From the age of 17, Kathrada, or “Uncle Kathy” as he would later be called, fought to end the system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination known as apartheid, and he spent twenty-six years in prison for his commitment to this principle, eighteen of which were at Robben Island.
In a 2014 BBC HARDTALK interview, Kathrada said of his life experience that you “face the reality of the day.”
On hearing the news of Kathrada’s death, I recognized that I had both a rare, and a common opportunity. I had the special opportunity to stand on soil where Kathrada and the other remarkable creators of a free South Africa once suffered, and later triumphed. I could walk the halls of the prison and grounds and witness how circumstances could change. History would teach me about the present. I also had the common opportunity to face the fact that the day-to-day grind could change; tiredness could turn to alertness, muscles could loosen, and insect bites could heal.
Later that day, I stood on the edge of Robben Island and I looked into the South Atlantic Ocean. The water careened between the coastline’s rocks and its sparkly blue failed to deceive its bitter cold truth. The cloudless, cobalt sky drenched the air with sunshine and the island’s arid topography, an unshaded landscape of limestone dust and sand, was harsh on the eyes. The island, the prison, had moved me.
Countless people were murdered and tortured in the struggle for a free South Africa; blood spilled to soil, bones broke, skin tore, and souls were segregated and split.
Kathrada said “prison was a bonus,” and from a tiny cell on a barren island with harsh conditions, he and his comrades continued moving with resistant thought and plans for a free future, and together, these men changed a country. As I thought of Kathrada from pier 45, I reflected on his profound efforts and how new realities are possible. I remembered, recognized, that the opportunity for progress exists in everyday circumstance, even those that feel innocuous, like a joggers muscle pain.
I continued to stretch my muscles and I asked myself for more effort, but not just the effort to eliminate my muscle tension, but also the effort to change my cyclical start-stop behavior, and create a lasting, healthy habit. Before heading back to Battery Park, I looked into the water one more time. The Hudson River flows from the Adirondack Mountains in the North, to the Atlantic Ocean in the South. The river’s current pushes its swells, lapping waves, and little ripples along its 315-mile journey. Its effort never ceases and the water moves.