Fears, Challenges, and the Grace of Being Ticked Off
I hate being fat. I've been fat for most of my life, pretty much since the third grade when I found out that I had asthma. I let that little factoid become an evolving excuse as to why I couldn't, just couldn't! do this or that active thing.
The lazier and fatter I got, the more I relied on my own excuses about why I should not have to do active, fun things with active, fun people.
Excuses only last for so long. Sometimes they do not work at all. And when that happens, now completely out of shape, I would be forced into situations where I had to be active, fun, and athletic. And of course I was just embarrassed by my inability and failure. No one wants to be embarrassed like that, so I withdrew further.
Embarrassment turned into fears, all sorts of fears, especially that common fear of failure.
And I liked those fears, because they kept me from those things that I thought were demanding far too much from me. I was not running from God, I just was running from... running. I feared demanding things because I did not know if I truly had what it takes.
Not-So Effective Change.
When the fears, embarrassments, and all that would get to be too much, I would try and "do something about it". Lent and New Year's Resolutions were the common failed tools. Lenten penances were far more successful, but ended with an Easter trip down fatty lane, discarding all those habits and behaviors that, for 40 days, I had cultivated with some success.
I have learned something: if I need a date on a calendar to bring about the change I need, I am probably never going to change. I am resting my will on something fake and arbitrary; something not strong enough to support a new way of living.
Have you ever used milestones in your life to bring about change? Hey, I'm graduating college, time to start my new life with a diet! That never works either. Piling on radical changes all at once seems like a good idea at the time. It never is. It is too overwhelming.
In short, I was weak. This is painful to admit.
My life was slipping away from me for the last two decades and I was not doing a thing about it. I was letting it happen. I was letting life happen to me, without my input or my push back. I was, to use a well-worn youth group analogy, a thermometer and not a thermostat. I was changed by my environment and did little to change it.
The people that I loved were neglected by me in subtle ways. I was just not truly living. I was hiding. Hiding from all the things out there that were not easy, that challenged me, that ripped away my fig leaf. My drive drifted away. Laziness crept into my studies, my worklife, my relationships. It was sad.
The Grace of Being Angry.
So screw it. After years of living like this, last January I finally got ticked off enough to do something about my life. I find that anger is a gift, a part of our emotional overdrive that, if used wisely and virtuously, can propel a person into making and sustaining radical changes in their own lives. Anger directed at injustice, especially the unjust actions one does to oneself, is sometimes the only remedy.
You just have to get mad enough to push back against life, against the status quo, whatever that may be for you. Maybe it is not about being overweight or just plain inactive like it is for me. Whatever it is, you will never change unless you get enraged enough at the sameness to make change a reality.
For me, it was my health, my habits of weakness and fears, and my growing inability to enjoy accomplishing something difficult out of fear of failing and being embarrassed. So I got angry. And the angrier I got, the more I realized that strength begins in humility, in acknowledging the brutal and hard truths about oneself and one's self-imposed prison. Self-knowledge is foundational for revolution and conversion. The anger just helps.
Realizing that nothing outside of myself was going to change me for the better (save that of grace), I knew that I had to make a decision and commit to it. There really is nothing secret about change. You really do just have to want it badly enough, be angry enough at the way things are, to bring change about. There are no tricks, no short-cuts, no hacks. All of those become so many distractions that change becomes more impossible.
So one day, January 6th or so, I decided that I would begin the Atkin's diet, which works really well for me, and that I would be utterly faithful to it. Committed. Dedicated. Not going to cheat.
Typically, I am the Three Week Man. I can do any diet or workout for around three weeks; once the third week comes and I hit a wall, the excuses roll back out and all of it collapses. I never realized how often I have played the part of the Three Week Man, but once I grasped that bit of self-knowledge, I was angry at myself for participating so willfully in the same cycle of behaviors over and over again. Three weeks was apparently my limit for change before the fear won out.
It has been five months now and I have lost over 40 pounds, still have another 40 to go. Lent was excruciating, especially Fridays, because my diet was already so restrictive to begin with that it was hard to make additional changes. But I made them and accomplished them.
I have distractions and temptations along the way. The absolute most annoying and anger-inducing temptation of them all is when someone close to me repeatedly tries to make me feel guilty for not eating whatever is shoved in front of me by said person. Like it is my fault they prepared food they knew ahead of time I could not and would not eat.
"Oh just this one time." "It's not going to kill you."
The sad thing is it was killing me. Living that self-indulgent life, that half-life of letting stuff happen to me, of having no discipline, energy, or drive, was indeed killing me. Now it only makes me mad that I let it go on for so long. Now I just politely refuse and, if pushed, impolitely refuse, no matter how awkward the situation gets. I have lost so much of my life by giving up and giving in that I am not going to accomodate anyone else's sense of social propriety so that I compromise on months of hard work.
It just is not worth it.
This is my new life, my better life, and if you cannot handle it, then I am sorry for you, but I cannot and will not go back to that weak, accomodating, yielding, passive-aggressive person that I was just six months ago. I do not need anyone else to accept this. The important thing is that I accept it and commit to it.
I hate being challenged in ways that I know, or presume, that I will fail. Everyone does. But such a thing is an integral part of life. The important thing is to meet the challenge head on, fail or no. The glory lies in the process, the struggle, and not necessarily in the accomplishment. But one can never get to the accomplishment if one never tries.
Lately, combating my fears directly by naming them and knowing them, I have used the remedy Saint Francis de Sales recommends in his spiritual writings, which is to oppose each vice using the counter-opposing virtue.
I have some real fears in my life. So now I am confronting them with challenges, real and painful challenges that force me to try, fail, try again, fail again but a little less of a failure, until the trying and the failing fall away and there is only Accomplishment left. Fears become smaller in the Land of Accomplishment. But it is a big and difficult swim to reach those shores, my friends.
I'm fat, so I diet. I'm weak, so I started lifting weights. I can't fight, so me and some buddies are going to start boxing routinely. I am a book nerd with no physical labor skills (surprised?), so I read a book, watched some videos, and built two gates and three fence sections for my parents.
I even went golfing today and missed about half my swings; the other half connected, though only causing the ball to roll twenty or so yards forward, on average. I was embarrassed when my club met air and not the golf ball perched on its tee. I wanted to impress my friends, blow their minds with my natural skill, or at least incredible beginner's luck.
But that would be cheating, wouldn't it?
So I tried with my driver, failed with the 9 iron, missed with the borrowed putter (whoops, forgot to bring one), and sank three balls in the water in a row. I tried, failed, tried again, failed again. But the fears went away. The embarrassment got smaller. And I could finally, at the last hole we played, begin to see the outlines and forms of the skills required to golf well.
That is knowledge I could not have attained if I just said, in fear, "I'm too busy to go golfing tomorrow morning."
Being fat and out of shape sucks. But wishing you were skinny and strong does not make it happen. Owning workout DVDs like P90X, dumbbells, and having access to gym equipment does not make it happen. Only human action- purposeful, intentional- can force your environment to accomodate you instead of the opposite. Only you responding to the grace of self-knowledge with true and authentic humility, saying, "The situation is bad and will only get worse", only when you get angry enough with the same-old-thing, will change actually come. You will be afraid because no one ever said this would be easy, but it's good.
Thomas Aquinas was once asked by a convent of austere nuns to write a book detailing how one becomes holy, a canonizable saint. They bound and pressed a book for him, which was expensive in those days, and presented it for the man of letters to expound a manual of sanctity. Briefly the book was finished and returned to them. Surprised, the nuns opened the book, only to find almost all of the pages empty. Only two words were written on the first page: