'In The Long Run': Lessons In Happiness
ANDREA SEABROOK, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington. Neal Conan is away. At age 45, while covering the 2008 Democratic primary campaign for CBS News, Jim Axelrod realized he was miserable. He was 30 pounds overweight, drinking too much, sleeping too little, rarely seeing his family, worrying about his future as a television correspondent. He asked himself: How did I get here?
Then redemption came in the form of an email, with a challenge from his father, who had been dead for eight years. In a new book, Axelrod chronicles his efforts to find the meaning of life by besting his father's New York Marathon race times.
So was there a moment in your life when you asked yourself: How did I get here? And what did you do to pull yourself back? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Scott McCartney at the Wall Street Journal on the surprising job of an airport chaplain. But first, Jim Axelrod joins us here in Studio 3A. His new book is "In The Long Run: A Father, a Son, and the Unintentional Lessons in Happiness." Thank you so much for coming in to the studio.
JIM AXELROD: Thank you for having me, Andrea.
SEABROOK: First, you're working your way up the ladder at CBS. You never say no to any new job offer. You come in early, and you stay late. You report from Iraq, Afghanistan. Tell us: How did you get there?
AXELROD: Well, I think I followed my father's cardinal lessons, never say no being at the top of the list, and while that certainly propelled me up the ladder, grabbing one rung after another, I found myself in a place that probably the law of unintended consequences took over, and there was a huge gap between the life that I had set out to live, the life I had intended to live, and the life I was living.
SEABROOK: So tell me a little bit more about the life you were living.
AXELROD: Well, it was, as you I think very succinctly summed up, I was miserable. And it wasn't a question of pulling myself back. It was a question of pulling myself forward. I was in a situation where I was just mindlessly repeating all sorts of established ways to get ahead without asking myself the very important question of is this where you want to go.
In my case, I was following the footsteps, literally following the footsteps of my father, who had taught me - a wonderful man but a little overstretched, a little overburdened, not terribly given to thinking about his own happiness. And so while I found myself climbing up a corporate ladder, in this case at CBS News, it was leading me to a place where I wasn't considering important questions like well-being and happiness.
SEABROOK: So tell me about this email. How did you get an email eight years after his death that changes your life?
AXELROD: So we're in Houston; I'm covering the Hillary Clinton campaign. I had broken off to go watch Barack Obama, and I hadn't seen him, and I kept hearing about, you've got to hear this guy. And so we go down to Houston to watch an Obama rally. I'm on the platform. He's walking out behind me. My BlackBerry goes off. And I'm two or three minutes from broadcast. So I have to check it to see if it's anything that's going to affect my story.
AXELROD: I look down. It's an email from my best friend Dave, who has an acute case of horrible timing, always sending me emails right before airtime.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: And I pop this one open, and he had been tooling around the New York Road Runners Club, he's a runner, and the website for the New York Road Runners Club has old marathon records. And he goes: Hey, look what I found? And he had sent me three records from the three times my father ran the New York Marathon in the early 1980s.
And I'm at a point in my life, as you mentioned, 30 pounds overweight; I was home 17 days in four months; drinking too much, sleeping too little, estranged from my life in every conceivable way, estranged from myself. And I'm wondering how did I get here? I need an answer. How did I get here?
And I look down, and I'm so out of shape I couldn't run to the bathroom if I had to, and I look down at my father's three New York Marathon times from the early '80s, and my instinctive, reflexive response is: Hey, I bet I could beat those. And the light bulb goes on. Ah, maybe this is how you got here, pal.
SEABROOK: Interesting, interesting. That wasn't the first time you asked yourself how did I get here. You asked that same question a few years earlier, on a bridge over the Euphrates River in Iraq.
AXELROD: Yeah, one would think that a near-death experience on a bridge over the Euphrates in the fetal position in the back of a Humvee with Iraqi artillery going off, your wife seven-and-a-half-months pregnant at home, surviving that, you think you would properly chasten, go home, beg forgiveness...
SEABROOK: Rein it in a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: And - right, exactly. You'd think five years wouldn't go by, and you'd still be asking yourself the same question: How did I get here?
SEABROOK: So what did the New York Marathon represent for you? You said that moment, that moment of looking down and saying I bet I could do better than my dad did, you learned something about yourself. What was that?
AXELROD: Well, about three weeks into the process, I realized I wouldn't get within an hour of his marathon time.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: But that wasn't - that really wasn't the point. The training, the 19 months from epiphany moment in the Toyota Dome and the New York Marathon, those 19 months were my introduction to getting it right, to getting it straight, and it was all about running.
It was all about having some dependable, reliable way to bring some control to the chaos that had become my life. You know, it's a lot of time on the road at 5:30 in the morning, it's a good way to figure - a lot of time to figure some things out. So for me, the running became this intrinsic part of understanding how it was I wanted to live.
And I had this gorgeously binary choice available to me every morning. I could get my behind out of bed, lace them up and go for a run and feel better, or I could roll over and not feel as good as I would have if I had just gone running.
And so all the complexity and the chaos of my life began to in some way clarify itself. I began to see a lot more clearly because I had introduced this simple but fundamentally important idea of doing something reliable and dependable that I could control, designed to bring me a sense of wellbeing.
SEABROOK: Jim Axelrod, we are also asking our listeners out there, tell us about a time in your life when you got to a point in your life when you said how did I get here, and then what did you do to pull yourself back. We're going to go first to Loving(ph) in Belleville, Illinois. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
LOVING: Hi, how are you guys today?
SEABROOK: Good, go ahead.
LOVING: Well, mine is a very woo-woo one. I had a midlife crisis in my late 30s. An astrologer had actually told me I was going to go through a two-year emotional roller coaster, and I'm thinking fine, I get through the next couple years and everything will be great.
I actually worked my way into a very severe depression, worse than anything I'd experienced before. Did get medical help. And also about the same time met a woman who was a student at a school where they teach you how to listen to your intuition. And so I tried it out, eventually after a few months broke from the school and started going to different classes in meditation and things of that sort.
And during one very advanced class, my intuition really blew open, and I started doing psychic reading, intuitive readings, energy healing with people and - but it was even more than that. I feel that it really taught me or really got me connected with God or divine source, and I feel like that's a really huge thing in my life.
AXELROD: You know, there's an interesting phrase the listener just used, which is midlife crisis. I began to think of it as a mid-course correction. So you're down this path. You know, the listener is telling us about the path she found herself down. You're down this path, and you literally need to correct your course.
So midlife crisis I know has become almost a cultural cliche for us, but it's a real thing, obviously, because it's this process of assessment. And I began to notice on the faces of so many people my age - mid-40s, late 40s - this notion of I've got to correct the course.
And so not everybody ends up on a bridge over the Euphrates, but we all end up on our bridges, don't we? Like every single person I know that's living a relatively examined life understands there's this crossroads point in your life. Am I living the life I intended to? We all have our bridges.
SEABROOK: Yeah, yeah. Do you think that running, with its physical aspect, had specifically something that could help anyone, or do you think it was very much your - for you the thing that pulled you back?
AXELROD: For me it was running, and I think there is something about the basics. You know, we take - we're gazing at our navels trying to contemplate happiness. Well, let's start out by being in decent physical shape, and, you know, you sleep better, and it's a mood elevator and this notion of control you can add to your life.
But for other people it may be knitting, or it may be biking. It could be golf. It could be reading poetry. There's an anchor that I think our lives are so chaotic, so busy. We have BlackBerrys and cell phones and kids hanging off our shirts and trying to be good spouses and good parents and good sons, and yet there's basically you need anchors because they're so - that breeze gets blowing so hard, you need an anchor as the breeze blows.
So for me it was running because it was so reliable as a - it gave me back and more everything I gave it, but I think just the idea of having some anchor in your life becomes a crucial part of the process of finding sustained wellbeing.
SEABROOK: It occurs to me that for better or worse, at earlier times in our culture, there have been pretty defined roles. And now everyone's trying to be every role.
AXELROD: I'm sure that's something you know about. I'm sure every listener is relating to that instinctively. You know, just lay it out for a second, what it is you're trying to accomplish in any given day, how many different hats you put on. It can get so confusing.
SEABROOK: One question that I want you to answer quickly, and that is for someone like me, who may still have one or two of those 30 pounds still on them, just jumping up at 5:30 and starting to run and plan for the marathon, that doesn't sound quite so likely. Tell me about the beginning of that journey for you quickly.
AXELROD: Well, for me it was getting up, running, getting halfway down the block and finding that I was oscillating, and my stomach was going up as my body was going down.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: And realizing all right, one - literally one step at a time. So no, you may not have a marathon in your future; I bet you have a walk around the block in your future.
SEABROOK: I'm talking to Jim Axelrod. His book is called "In the Long Run: A Father, A Son and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness." Was there a moment in your life when you asked yourself how did I get here? And how did you pull yourself back from that? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Andrea Seabrook, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook, and I'm talking with Jim Axelrod about the moments that make people stop and ask themselves, how did I get here? Jim Axelrod writes about several of those moments in his memoir "In the Long Run: A Father, A Son and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness."
Was there a moment in your life when you asked yourself, how did I get here? And what did you do to pull yourself back? The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Jim Axelrod, I have this - okay, this sense now of you running. You're starting to gain some control over your life. But it's by no means a smooth ride.
AXELROD: Not linear.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SEABROOK: Not linear?
AXELROD: Not at all.
SEABROOK: Tell me about it.
AXELROD: Oh my goodness, everything from the worst case of shin splints anyone ever suffered to kidney stones four weeks before the actual marathon, which - but you know what, I mean, the whole process was so metaphorical. I mean, what in life is linear, and what doesn't involve some degree of pain?
SEABROOK: At what point did you realize that being a Washington correspondent for CBS News wasn't the job for you anymore?
AXELROD: I had a crystallizing moment, actually. I was - in September of 2008, as the financial crisis was beginning to explode. I was the White House correspondent for CBS News, and I'm sitting in the front row of the briefing room, and they've trotted out Hank Paulson to explain to everybody, then Treasury secretary, what's going on. And it was a very important moment.
And I'm zoned, I'm lasered on Hank Paulson because I want to do my job right, but I begin to notice that his pinky is grotesquely disfigured. He had had a football injury when he was at Dartmouth, and it was one of those moments like a Charlie Brown's teacher moment, where suddenly the Treasury secretary's voice is becoming...
(SOUNDBITE OF NOISES)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: And all I'm doing is noticing the pinky, and I thought: Is this really my life's work? Should I be so easily distracted? Because as you know, I mean, you do it. Good Washington reporting is essentially a policy reporting job, and I think I was always much more interested and probably better at sort of plumbing the connections between people as opposed to sort of the policy. And that was an epiphany for me in terms of realizing maybe there's other kinds of work you could be happier in.
SEABROOK: What did you do?
AXELROD: Well, I left the White House shortly after - when President Bush left, so did I. And I found myself beginning to do a little more of "CBS Sunday Morning" work, and I had a chance - for instance, I had a chance to, shortly after the Paulson thing, to go out and interview Craig Robinson, who is the coach at Oregon State University's basketball team.
And he had been this tremendously successful financial guy with a big salary who had found himself unhappy in that work. He had also been a two-time Ivy League basketball player of the year at Princeton. And he had left his finance job, took a 90-percent pay cut to get into college coaching.
And he had a really interesting backstory because he was Michelle Obama's brother, still is. So I'm out there talking to this guy who's taken this big pay cut to, you know, sort of hit the reset button on his life, and it's led to this sort of deeper sense of happiness. I'm like, hey, maybe this isn't the worst model in the world. You know, open your eyes, pal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SEABROOK: You took your son on that trip.
AXELROD: I did, I did, which was amazingly powerful. So he was 11 at the time. And, you know, this was the kind of thing, I was in the process of really working - in addition to the running, trying to make sense of this relationship with my late father because I also, I don't think anyone's really going to find a lasting and sustained sense of well-being without sort of untangling some of those knots, in this case the relationship with my father being probably the most tangled knot I had.
And so taking my son was my attempt at trying to do something different than my dad would have done with me, and I wouldn't have done it if my wife hadn't said hey, why don't you take Will on your trip? And my instant response to her was, you know what? Please, I know my business, and I'm not going to be that guy. I'm not going to be the clown who shows up with a kid to a big interview.
And as we talk about in the book, we get to this pivotal moment in the interview where Craig Robinson is telling us about taking Barack Obama out to a playground to see if his game's good enough to marry his sister, and my son gets up. And I'm like: Oh, see, I knew I shouldn't have brought him. And he walks over to this pile of coats, and he sticks his head in a down jacket and sneezes, muffling the sneeze so he wouldn't destroy the interview.
And Coach Robinson comes over to me afterwards and says, that's quite a mature kid you've got there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: And I thought to myself, I guess you can do business a little bit differently and have it work out quite nicely.
SEABROOK: I want to definitely get to our callers here. Let's go to Amy(ph) in Sioux, Iowa. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
AMY (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me.
SEABROOK: It's a pleasure.
AMY: Well, my how-did-I-get-here moment happened after a bed-rest pregnancy in my late 20s. I found myself in bed for 25 weeks total.
SEABROOK: Oh my goodness.
AMY: As that pregnancy concluded, after a very rare condition, I gave birth to identical twin daughters, one alive, one departed, and I was given a warning by my physician that after that much bed rest, even in my 20s, I could expect to live a really different life, that I had most likely sustained some bone loss from lack of activity. My muscles were atrophied.
I had had a pretty severe case of twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. At the time, I lived in a remote area, a rural state. I'm the wife of a clergyman. I was pretty isolated to start with, and now I'm not only staggering under the loss of this child but also raising her preemie twin and my toddler.
And the how-did-I-get-here moment came when I realized I couldn't - I couldn't do my activities of daily living with any sense of - you know, I couldn't do anything efficiently. I couldn't carry my wash. I couldn't pick up my toddler. I had weight limitations in terms of what I could pick up with my - you know, with my arms that had been shot through with pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel, and...
SEABROOK: My goodness. So what did you do?
AMY: Well, my best friend said why don't you come and visit me? And I said, well, okay. And I tried to - you know, I made the long trip across the prairie. And she opened the door to a dance studio. And she said get into this fitness class. You might enjoy it.
And I whirled on her. I was angry. I said, if I need fitness, I'm the one who's going to decide what to do and when to do it because I'm sick. I'm not well. And it's none of your business. And she said, come on, let's go. So I did this fitness class.
Fast-forward to right now. I am a successful fitness professional, and I'm a certified personal trainer. I do strength and cardio modalities, and I've had my own business for four years. I have a tremendous opportunity this summer to transfer my work to a metropolitan area, and I'm so grateful. You know, just to have a life is a gift, but to get a second chance, you know, it's - it'd be a sin to waste it.
So I'm working in fitness. I'm dealing with populations who are facing similar issues or their own issues. Everybody really comes from their own place. But I have the opportunity, you know, not all of my clients have known my history and that in my late 30s, I've been through some pretty, pretty limiting physical situations, but...
SEABROOK: Thank you so much.
AMY: I come with that experience. And I'm grateful. I'm so thankful.
SEABROOK: Thank you, Amy.
AXELROD: So this is the wonderful thing about that story. So there's a story of resilience, and what I've found in writing about it and laying my story out there and listening to stories like that, in every office, in the next cubicle, on the bus that you're commuting home from, behind the counter at the convenience store, everywhere that you connect with people, there are stories like this.
This is a universal part of our lives. You get to a point in your life, some sort of come out of left field, some you might think about after a divorce or some kind of financial setback. You never know when it's going to happen, but there are these moments everybody has of how did I get here. And it's how you respond to that moment that actually determines the quality of your life.
And they're everywhere. I'm telling you, you talk tomorrow, when you all go back to work, ask - the conversations are there. It just requires being aware of this process and then prodding that out of people that normally you wouldn't talk about those things with.
SEABROOK: The question is how did I get here? Let's go to David in Louisville, Colorado. Hi.
DAVID (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.
SEABROOK: It's a pleasure.
DAVID: So I - it was a little bit in reverse of your guest. I was a runner, mostly trail running, but as I - you know, I work 200 days a year around the world, and I always did my running and my yoga. And then this winter, December 28th, I got lost in the Colorado backcountry. And I had - during cross-country skiing. And I had two moments. There were two things where, you know, you meet the defining moment.
One is at 2 o'clock in the morning, am I going to curl up in a ball and wait for August for somebody to find what's left of me or cowboy up and get out, which is what I chose to do. There was a price. I lost - February 1st, I lost all my toes and my heels, which makes running pretty much not acceptable at the moment, accessible.
SEABROOK: Oh goodness.
DAVE: So the thing is, though, I was on the road to alcoholism just, you know, drinking way too much even though I was still running. And, you know, I had a friend of mine come in, said, you know, you can't do this while you're healing, and took out all my alcohol and help me dry up. And I had other friends come and help me with the wheelchair and teach me how to, you know, crawl up the stairs and crawl in the bed. And all these people came that I never thought cared. And now, I'm - you know, I've just gotten a new job that's going to keep me at home more. I've built these relationships. I'll be able to continue these relationships, as opposed to getting back on the road on my original job.
And so I had the two. You know - one, to wake up and live or die; or two, and now two, this whole new world of people and learning to ask for help and giving help and - is something I never experienced as a...
AXELROD: So let me ask you a question. I don't want to be trite. You've been through trauma. I get that. But can you just compare the quality of your life prior to the trauma and now?
DAVE: Oh, I had no quality of life. I lived from one hotel room to the other. And, yes, I would have a great running day or a great running race as a single day by myself.
AXELROD: See, these are...
DAVE: But now, it's so much fuller to - I just spent the weekend with a bunch of other amputees up in Winter Park, Colorado, watching people be ecstatic as MS patients getting to the top of a climbing wall or being on an adaptive mountain bike and mountain biking with no legs, you know - and I would never have thought of sharing a weekend with these people before. And they were fabulous people...
AXELROD: So, Andrea, this...
AXELROD: ...this becomes - this leads us to the discussion of metrics, right?
SEABROOK: Thank you, Dave.
AXELROD: I mean, it's all about what metrics we're using to measure our lives with...
AXELROD: ...and the quality of our lives. So, again, this becomes very pat. You need to avoid the cliche. I mean, look, people want to make enough money to take care of their families. It's not as simple as, you know, wearing a loincloth and going off to the woods in search of bliss.
AXELROD: But the metrics one uses you would be surprised. We're just hearing from David here about - he didn't hesitate there in telling us about the quality of his life now, having lost his toes and his heels. He didn't hesitate in terms of talking about which life, prior to the trauma or after, is of a deeper quality.
SEABROOK: Another thing that strikes me about David's call - and David, thank you so much for your call - is that he talked about the fact that he was drinking too much and that he was on the road to alcoholism. And you mentioned the same thing - you were drinking too much. You weren't sleeping enough. And it seems to me that sometimes we get into cycles when we think we're curing something with our habits, but we're actually making it so much worse.
AXELROD: It's all anesthesia.
AXELROD: I mean, pick your poison but it's all anesthesia, because to contemplate the root cause of that is far too painful and complicated. And ultimately, it's just a lot easier to have them pour you another vodka tonic.
SEABROOK: Right, right. Let's go to this email here from - this is from Rowena in Berkeley. She writes, I'm a 44-year-old single mother whose son is almost 15. About six to eight months ago, I found myself experiencing anger like never before, mostly because of how my once most wonderful son has been relating to me: challenging, being illogical, being selfish. I felt like I failed as a mother.
I'd had success with acupuncture treatment. I tried a new lady who was a mind-body counselor using acupuncture as her course of treatment. She told me about the book of Michael Riera on teenagers. I felt that though my mind and body had undergone a rewiring. The book talked about the exact challenges I had with my son. I've been fired as his manager and now work as his consultant. Life has been so much better. We're communicating so much better.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. You and your son as well, tell me about that relationship.
AXELROD: Well, so I have - I actually have a daughter and two sons. I think, in many ways, fathers - that relationship - I've talked to a lot of women about this - that there's something about the crossing of the gender line, like mommy/son, daddy/daughter. It's a little cleaner and easier in terms of - just the flow of energy. So my boys, obviously, are - it's a more loaded thing for me because I just have worked out this relationship with my father in my 40s, and I don't want them - I don't want my boys writing books, you know...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AXELROD: ...about their dad so - and to me, I want to make sure I'm not repeating any of the, sort of, the lessons, you know, that I learned. I want to make sure that my boys feel they're being raised by a man who sees them and understands them. It requires, though, vigilance, a recalibration and the application of what I had learned through finally untangling those knots in my relationship with my father, then applying all of that to make sure that I'm raising my boys right.
SEABROOK: It takes such mindfulness.
AXELROD: It does. At the end of a day, when you've been worried about, you know, X number of things at work and the BlackBerry's been going off and the phone, and blah, blah, blah.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SEABROOK: Jim in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hi, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
JIM (Caller): Thank you for taking my call.
SEABROOK: Yes, sir.
JIM: I never really had to ask myself how I got here. I knew that, that's because I put off pleasure for work most of my life. I've a small landscape company and three years ago - I guess, about 10 really - I was on my way to work. Double - two-lane highway, a big dump truck - Mack truck comes left to center, right in my lane. I could look up and see the bulldog coming at me and I thought - my first thought was, I'm going to die. And my second thought was, I'm going to just pull out. I'm going to drive right between him and the guy he's trying to - he was trying to pass on the other line. I will be hurt but I won't die. It's funny how the mind works so fast in those kinds of situations. I didn't die. My truck was totaled.
After that, I thought, you know, life is too short to put off fun and to put off good things. And within a couple of weeks, I booked a trip to the U.K., and since then I've tried to live my life by realizing every day is a decision. How am I going to live today? What am I gonna do?
SEABROOK: Every day is a decision.
JIM: ...is a decision. Me or somebody...
SEABROOK: Jim, thank you so much for your call.
AXELROD: You know, here's the thing, Andrea. We're hearing stories about, you know, driving down the middle of the line or getting lost in the Colorado backcountry. So here's the challenge. The challenge is not to have something - or being lost on a bridge in Iraq, you know? The challenge is to do it without something so extreme, to wake up and ask yourself this question before you get to some extreme situation, am I doing the right thing to live the life I want to live?
SEABROOK: There is so much more in Jim Axelrod's book "In the Long Run: A Father, a Son, and Unintentional Lessons in Happiness." Jim Axelrod, national correspondent for CBS News, thank you so much for joining me here.
AXELROD: Thanks for having me.
SEABROOK: Up next, airport chaplains do it all: talk down nervous flyers, give confession, even break up rowdy crowds. If you've ever visited an airport chapel, tell us why. 800-989-8255. I'm Andrea Seabrook. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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