Thursday, July 25, 2013

I Don't Want to Go to the Gym

I've had one of those days at work.  During lunch, I was answering a call, typing an email, and reviewing another document.  You know, one of THOSE days.  And I will be lucky if I catch up tomorrow. 

After I polish off some more of this nonsense, I'm supposed to go to the gym.  And run on the treadmill.  Because apparently when life is a little more difficult than I would like it to be (and I guess I would like it to be pretty easy), I have some chocolate.  I'm not talking about ten pounds of chocolate.  I'm talking about some chocolate.  I don't eat mostly broccoli, so I guess by today's standards I am basically poisoning myself, but honestly I do not eat that much food most of the time.  (Though I suspect my thyroid dose needs to be tweaked.  Meaning at least two medical appointments and many hours in traffic.  I'll get to it.)  Nevertheless, I am not in the best shape and I'd like to have less cellulite than I do and half of my suits don't fit and that makes me sad. 

What I want to know is, if I put in a really diligent day at work - meaning that I force myself to focus on things that I don't really want to do, for hours and hours - and then I do my hour-long commute, and then I get home and do the laundry or wash the dishes or water my garden and weed and stake the cornstalks that are falling over or make a big batch of dinner or finish the insulation on the porch or sand, treat, and paint the back steps or any of the dozens of other labors that are on my list - why am I not automatically in perfect shape? 

This is a genuine question. 

I understand that, as a matter of biology, editing other people's work product for ridiculous typos and bad logic doesn't burn a lot of calories.  But I really don't enjoy it.  And I force myself to do it anyway.  We each have a limited store of willpower, and while a spiritual director will tell you that the more you exercise your willpower, the more you have, that is simply a ridiculous lie.  Maybe it's true that exercise increases your capacity to use willpower, but on any given day, grinding yourself into productivity has a natural limit after which you actually are going to eat ten pounds of chocolate.  I know this for a fact because I have tried to work 14-hour days and also eat healthy and go to daily Mass and go for a run many times.  It does not work. 

I want to know why, if I abuse my psyche into strain and tedium for hours upon hours, why do I have to abuse myself (with condemnation.  "You great pig!  How dare you complain about how your suits don't fit?  You're LAZY.  Think about what people in third-world countries have to endure!  You're lucky you even have a gym to go to!  You're lucky you have legs to run on at all!  You could be handicapped!  You're an ungrateful wretch!  With love handles because you have no self-control or good sense and your diet is disgusting and you act like it's a monumental effort to run 20 minutes of intervals on the treadmill!  GO RUN RIGHT NOW!") just so I don't have to hate myself for not being a size 4 any more? 

I'm asking. 

For the record, I don't feel good about myself after I go to the gym.  Or daily Mass.  Or after I eat a salad and skip the chocolate (actually, I feel severely sad about that, so much so that I will almost certainly have the chocolate later).  I feel good about only one thing: the abusive voices will be silenced until tomorrow. 

The problem with the life of virtue, to my way of thinking, is that it is a failure model, not an accomplishment model.  I like anything with an accomplishment model.  "Look!  You spent twenty hours in the last month working on this wretched garden plot!  And it looks stunning!  Four people just said so spontaneously!"  "Hey!  You worked hard all semester, and spent hours reading obscure references so you could write a brilliant final paper!  Then you managed your time well and got it written when you had a clear head, and a day left to go back and edit!  You got the only A in the class!  You win!"  "You've been in the kitchen all day in the heat while other people were lounging.  But you made magnificent cookies and everyone loves them and thinks you're brilliant!"  I will work until I fall over if at the end of a manageable period, I WIN. 

Virtue is a lack-of-accomplishment model.  "You got up this morning on four hours' sleep to get to daily Mass?  Great.  But you were late, weren't you?  And how closely did you pay attention?  Were you recollected at the consecration?  Do you remember what the readings and the homily were about?  HOW MANY ROSARIES HAVE YOU PRAYED TODAY?  Oh, you think you're a saint because you managed to show up for 18 minutes of Mass?  Sure, that sounds like sanctity to me." 

I think I should just be fat. 


  1. One of my husband's good friends was a kinesiology major in college and both he and my husband work in a field that demands they be extremely physically fit. This friend, who is the diet and exercise guru of our crowd absolutely believes that, while he and the other guys obviously have to do more because of their jobs, the general population doesn't actually need to work out. A bold statement, right? A generally healthy diet, in reasonable proportions and a reasonably active lifestyle (gardening is hard work!) is enough. It is lovely to work on building strength and staying flexible, but a nice walk in the evenings with one's spouse is a better use of time for one's health and happiness than 20 minutes on the treadmill. Relaxing, enjoyable exercise that isn't a chore should be the goal if your daily life is fairly sedentary. As for what size you might be, people are naturally built to be a certain shape and size. Our culture fights against it, but again as long as you are eating reasonably well and are reasonably active then you're good. My 2 cents.

  2. I had a spiritual director back in the day. We never really clicked and I never learned how to answer the question, "How was your relationship with God this week?" without sounding like an idiot.

    Her favorite adverb was "gently." e.g. "Let's pray about this gently.....During the week, gently look at this issue." In all honesty, it drove me crazy and I had no idea, at the time, what it meant.

    But reading your post, I'm starting to get it. You have tendencies to self-flagellation that don't make you happier and will not make you more productive. (I had some research that supported this, but I can't find it now.) Neither will they endow you with a rock-hard body. I have the same tendencies--though for me they are worse with work and my tendency to self-flagellate for under-productivity.

    I think Katherine, above, is advocating a gentle and holistic approach to fitness that values process (eating well and staying active) over ends (losing x lbs and staying a size 4). I've read studies that suggest that women in their 30-40s with desk jobs need to exercise vigorously AT MINIMUM one hour every day to MAINTAIN the weight they were in their 20s. If you want to do this.....okay, I guess. But wouldn't your whole person be better served by learning to love the body you have and using your exercise time to pursue activities that make you healthier in mind and spirit, as well as in body?

  3. One more thing:

    Regarding willpower: I have heard that willpower is like a muscle. You do have to exercise it, and the more you exercise it, the easier it is to use. However, like your muscles, you can overuse your willpower and exhaust it.

    To extend the simile, you can't run a marathon without training. But NO ONE can run a marathon every single day, day after day, no matter how diligently and rigorously you've trained. So if you are exhausting your willpower by flogging yourself into endless productivity, a perfect diet, and hours of exercise every single day, then your willpower will be exhausted and no amount of berating yourself is going to keep you from spending a few days sitting on the couch for twelve hours straight, eating cookies and watching Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. Again. (I did this for pretty much an entire summer after finishing my dissertation.)

  4. On retreat a few months back I read a bit from a book about Jean Vanier and L'Arche community. There I encountered the idea of how we are driven to be productive in our society, but that being fruitful may be a more loving goal - loving to ourselves, true to what God is asking of us, etc. Perhaps that lines up more with how you feel at the end of the day - have you been good to yourself (good food, reasonable exercise, time to rejuvenate yourself) than how many widgets did I make, how many cookies did I bake, how many weeds did I pull???

    I am still trying to wrap my mind around this whole idea. It's not easy since productivity and others' judgement are held up to be the metresticks for us. I hope you are able to take time off from being critical of yourself and instead enjoy all the good you are in the world :)