Running toward balance
By Jennie Szink, Special to The Dayton Jewish Observer
When Jim Axelrod commutes home to Montclair, N.J. from Manhattan, he studies the looks on people’s faces around him. They don’t reflect relief at the end of the work day or anticipation of seeing their families. Instead, they’re what Axelrod describes as “faces etched with anxiety and the stress of modern day life.”
It’s a look with which Axelrod is all too familiar. Four years ago, the CBS News national correspondent and author of In the Long Run felt the same desire to strive for something more — even if he already had it all. He tried to convince himself that living the American dream would be the answer, but he ended up feeling empty.
“Polls reflect that Americans say they are happy,” Axelrod said. “That’s not my experience. We have an obsession with acquisition. We’re off track and are forgetting about happiness.”
In a search for happiness, Axelrod initially set out on what he now knows is the wrong path. He drank, worked too much and weighed too much, and saw his family too little.
He was on the road covering the Democratic presidential nomination and hotel rooms were his home. They were “desperate times,” he said, “calling for desperate measures.” He needed a change, saying, “the rest of my life depended on it.”
“I needed something to focus on and gain control in a life that had spun out of control,” Axelrod said.
While digging through some of his father’s old belongings one day, he came across the catalyst that got him back to being the husband and person he knew he could be. His father’s New York Marathon time at age 46, the age Axelrod was approaching, sent him on a 19-month journey to understand what he was really searching for. Axelrod chronicled this in In the Long Run, which he will discuss as part of the DJCC’s Cultural Arts and Book Festival on Nov. 7.
“The marathon time came to represent an unconscious competition I’d been engaged in with my Dad,” Axelrod said. “It played out on several fronts, but it was tangible and recognizable in his time, and I instantly latched on. It was a long process of understanding that I’ll never beat his marathon time, but that’s not essential anymore.”
Axelrod’s father was a first-generation Jewish American; he saw to it that his children were well-educated, and never worried about the cost of their learning. Axelrod respected and loved his father, but he realized that by measuring his life against his father’s and other influences’ lives, he was holding himself back. It’s something he notices people often do, sabotaging their happiness.
“You can never be happy long-term if you’re measuring your life using someone else’s as a yardstick,” he said.
Running the New York Marathon in 2009 taught Axelrod that since he’d never beat his father at running (Axelrod’s time was 4:30:00, his father’s 3:29:58), he needed to slow down and find out what in life would really make him happy. One thing was returning home to New Jersey. Another was losing 30 pounds and becoming a healthy eater. Through it all, he stayed strong in his faith, describing his daughters’ Bat Mitzvah in his book. He now looks forward to his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah.
Axelrod understands that the current economic trends, such as unemployment, can make it hard for people to stay upbeat in life. While it’s sometimes impossible not to be discouraged by outside influences, it’s important to find something positive in life to lift your spirits.
“I had a guy stand up while I was talking about happiness and say, ‘That’s easy for you to say, Mr. News Correspondent,’” Axelrod said. “I won’t lecture anyone on happiness because the most important part of it is feeling like you’re taking care of your responsibilities. But even if you’re looking for a job, you can still put your running shoes on and go for jog.”
Even if it’s not marathon running, Axelrod urges everyone to find something that will allow them to examine life’s “deeper questions” and be the compass pointing them in the direction of happiness.
“My story is about struggle, the difficulties of life,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you have to become a marathon runner, but you have an obligation to yourself to be sharp, comfortable and have a good quality of life.”
The DJCC’s Cultural Arts and Book Festival presents CBS News National Correspondent Jim Axelrod on Monday, Nov. 7 at 8:15 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE. At 7 p.m., prior to Axelrod’s talk, Robert Lipsyte will discuss his new book, An Accidental Sportswriter. The cost for both is $5 in advance, $8 at the door. Call Karen Steiger at 853-0372.