What Newton Taught Me about Living: Inertia

My senior year in college I found myself in an unusual place. After three years focused on classes in literature, history, philosophy and theatre, I was sitting in a science class. And not just any science class, but lab physics. My lab partner, a brilliant woman who would later attend Johns Hopkins medical school and go on to become a pediatric surgeon at the University of Michigan, didn’t quite know what to expect. Truthfully, neither did I. It was my first science class since high school.

I did fine in the class, but my mind was always miles away thinking about what was next in my life — planning for marriage and starting grad school. Strangely, it was the fact that I was focused on other things that helped me get the most out of the class. Because even though I couldn’t do a physics equation today, I still think about what I learned that year from Newton and how it translates into life:

  • Newton’s First Law: Inertia. A body at rest stays at rest. A body in motion stays in motion.
  • Newton’s Second Law: Force. Force is equal to mass times acceleration.
  • Newton’s Third Law: Action & Reaction. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Inertia

I don’t know about you, but my most productive days start with a fast morning. Up, showered and out the door with a plan and a mission. On those days I am damn near unstoppable, running from one task or obstacle to another. I am a ‘go hard’, ‘go fast’ machine, regardless of what I should or could do to slow down and take time to recharge.

The days when I struggle to gain traction are the ones where I have a slow start. I wake with my iPad, leisurely reading posts in bed while the minutes slip away and turn into hours. Sometimes, I am avoiding a hard task, but mostly I am just stuck. Stuck in the comfort of a warm bed or a sedentary state of mind. I am a two-ton statue that is unable to shift off its base, much less climb big mountains, regardless of the important work that needs doing.

For me, it is a constant fight against inertia: 

  • I just can’t slow down when in Mack Truck mode. 
  • I just can’t start up when stuck in park.

It’s easy to feel that my challenge in dealing with inertia is a personal failing. But physics taught me it’s not. Inertia is just a part of the world, as simple and predictable as a sunrise. Newton taught me it takes energy and force to influence a body at rest or a body at motion — some outside effort is needed.

Knowing that gives me the ability to ask for help and to build systems and mechanisms to deal with the inherent inertia everywhere. It caused me to create ‘no cook Fridays’ as a commitment to slow heading into the weekend and guarantee a meal with my family. It made me appreciate my first year in grad school when I had the ‘worst’ schedule (8am-12pm Monday-Friday) because the structure of class got me going and inertia gave me the focus to study long into the night.

Maybe I would have found a way to understand being stuck — and getting out of it — without learning Newton’s first law. After all, people dealt with inertia before Newton had even written the word down. People have leaned in and pushed hard and heave hoed not thinking much about it, just doing what was necessary. Formulas explain the world, the don’t make it.

But like Newton, I just like knowing why it works.

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