So here are a few dumb questions. Do you have enough fuel? Are you tall enough? Do you really think she cares that much about you?
I have no wish to pejorate—ordinarily, I would have said “minimize” or something, but I just learned pejorate and I want to get comfortable with it—the concerns underlying these questions. There is nothing wrong with the concerns; it is the question that are dumb.
If I were part of the conversations in which these questions were asked, I would want to know—and so would you: enough for what, enough for what, and “cares enough to do what, exactly?” Enough fuel to get home after the little fuel pump light comes on the dashboard. Sure, I’m only a mile from home. Enough height to be allowed to ride something at Disneyworld. Yup. I’m still a little over 6 feet tall, although not as much over as I used to be. Does she are enough about be to water my plants while I’m on vacation? Sure. She’s an old friend and she likes plants.
Once you add the missing information, everything works. What information is missing when we as whether we are “in shape?” “In shape for what?” seems like a good guess. We routinely aspire to “getting in shape” and to “being in shape.” We assure our friends that we are not really “out of shape,” although, we admit, we might look like it. Does everyone have the same thing in mind?
Let’s come at this from the back side. It was pretty puzzling on the front side. I need to walk a mile to get the bus stop. I need to sit through a mind-numbingly obtuse committee meeting for three hours. I need to stop by a local senior center and spend some time with a few friends who do not have the mental acuity they once had and who might or might not know who I am when I show up. I need to get to three appointments at different parts of town in the same day.
Am I “in shape?”
Here’s one way of looking at it. There are some things I must do or that I have chosen to do. If I can do them, I am “in shape.” I am in good enough shape, that is, to do the things I must do. Let’s say that I am. I am able to walk the mile to the bus stop, although I need to allow a little longer than I once did. I am good enough physical shape to do that. I am in good enough emotional shape to endure the three-hour meeting, all the while playing the part I need to play and refusing to make the meeting less effective because I am there. I have enough loyalty and enough empathy to see my elderly friends at the senior center. I’m not all that big on loyalty and empathy, perhaps, but I know what it will take to do this particular act and I know I have at least that much. I can track when the appointments are and where they are and get to all three of them without debilitating anxiety and without undue levels of anxiety. We could call that “executive function,” which is what the lecturer at the Pre-Alzheimer’s Support Group called it.
So I actually am in shape. I have the cognitive, conative, affective, and behavioral abilities to do all those things. To me, that way of saying that I am “in shape” makes a lot of sense. I am not under the illusion that it is going to become a common way to use this all too common phrase, but I like it anyway. This picture is one of the kinds of “being in shape” have in mind.
If I am not in shape, there are two kinds of things I can do. I can increase my capacities so that I can do things like these without exhausting myself or my friends. Conversely, I can reduce the demands to what I am currently in shape for. I’ve experienced both of these and you probably have too. In 2006, I suffered a periodic and mostly unexplained disorientation. This happened to me while I was in the middle of living an ordinary and not very demanding life, but I did have some obligations to meet. I would call the convener of the meeting and say that I would come if I were able and I would stay as long as I was able, then I would go home. On the other side, I have increased my cardiovascular fitness and learned some techniques of concentration and simplified my schedule so that I can manage them.
“Not being in shape” is like a wall. You can learn to get over the wall at the regular height of six feet. That’s probably the best idea, all other things being equal. Or you can move the height down to four and a half feet. Clearly, what we have been calling “in shape” is a ratio between your abilities and the challenges you will have to meet. My idea is that if you know it’s a ratio, you have two chances to be in shape and I like that. Do you?
 It will simplify quite a few sentences if I can just say that I am going to treat things I am obligated to do, things I would like to do, and things I am required to do as the same kind of “must.” That means that moral and legal obligations and internal and external sources will all get dumped in the same pile. Ordinarily, I don’t do that.
 All those are common except conative, which refers to the facility for intention. It is the past participle of the Latin verb conari, “to undertake, to attempt.” I cannot imagine how we let a word like that slip away.