Sunday, December 18, 2022

Because I Think I'm Making Progress

I know it's tiresome, the way I yatter on about my attempts to control my eating, and I know that the project seems endless. I'm well into its sixth year, and rolling out an elaborate "maintenance" plan, complete with graphs and algorithms, and I think it would be reasonable for a reader to say, "why don't you just get the hell over it and think about something different, and more interesting, for a change? Nobody else gives a damn about this"

Which is quite true: there's really nobody anymore who cares that much whether I weigh 150 or 250 pounds. And it doesn't even matter to me that much: I'm close enough to the end of my life that moving life expectancies around by 5% or 10% doesn't, in absolute terms, amount to much. Who cares?

There's three reasons I do care. One psychological: it's that this bears crucially on the narrative of my life. I grew up believing that under challenge I would always collapse, and that being fat was the outward sign of my cowardice and lack of fortitude. I believed also, like my mother, that this doomed me to being perpetually, and essentially, unlovable. So psychologically, it's as fraught as it can be. Is it my fate to become ever fatter and ever less loved? 

That reason is nonsense and always has been. It was nonsense of my mother as well, who grew ever fatter and had three devoted husbands. The fat wasn't particularly a problem, even to her longevity: she made it into her early 80s. The Doom of our House was always a stupid fiction.

So if this was only a psychological problem, it would make sense to simply drop it. Who cares how much I eat? Nobody. It's of compelling interest to no one at all.

However. The second reason has to do, not with longevity or lovability, but with physical well-being. Being fat renders me sulky, pimply, smelly, and impotent. It makes me susceptible to joint pain and back problems. Very little of that has to do with subcutaneous fat, which is pretty harmless: I think it has to do with visceral fat and chronic systemic inflammation. When I have a big belly my baseline is feeling really pretty crappy.

I used to think that people were exaggerating all these things, in the interests of the diet industry and so forth. Now that I have direct experience of it, I no longer think so. The differences are large, unmistakable, and unmistakably tied to a very particular threshold of belly fat. My body hates being fat.

The third reason though is much more important, and it has to do with -- I know a lot of you dislike this way of talking about it -- cultivating virtue. 

The opposite of gluttony is supposedly temperance, but in my case the virtue I'm cultivating is actually fortitude. It is the virtue I have always missed most. It has to do with keeping resolutions, and remaining steadfast in the face of adversity: it has to do keeping commitments. It has to do with not letting passing whims and glittery little distractions drive your life. The reason I keep practicing "whupping the food thing" is that I keep benefitting from it. Fortitude generalizes, in all sorts of ways. It keeps making me a better person: it keeps making my life better. Pablo Casals, when asked why he continued practicing the cello at age 96, answered simply, "because I think I'm making progress." And that's my answer too.

The difference in how I work, now, is striking: I used often to hit a wall -- if I was lucky, not till mid-afternoon -- beyond which I was utterly unable to push myself to do anything more. This happened daily; and there were days when I never managed to work at all. That just doesn't happen to me now. I get tired, sure, but if I look at a stack of work that will just take an hour more, and make tomorrow much easier -- I just do the work. No fuss, no bucking or shying of the mind. This is intimately related to restraining my eating: it's subjectively obvious that the virtue that enables me to proceed with work is the same one that enables me to refrain from eating what I've decided not to eat. I'd call it fortitude. Psychologists call it self-regulation. The general public calls it will power. 

I really think fortitude is a better name. Because it's not a matter of one part of me dominating the other parts: it's a matter of holding fast to a larger understanding of what's going on, and a matter of the various constituents of my spirit being better aligned. Self-regulation and will power suffer all the ills of despotism: blindness and caprice and grandiosity. And they're prone to sudden catastrophic failure. Fortitude is the opposite of that. I don't try to not to be tired, or not to be hungry. I just do what needs to be done anyway.

There is not much glory to this progress. I am well aware that this is remedial work. Many people were trained up in fortitude, as children, or at least discovered it early. I came to it late: so I'm celebrating triumphs more appropriate to a nine-year-old than a sixty-four-year-old. But it was the obvious, first thing that I needed to do, and I'm doing it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you

Dale said...

Thank you for reading!

Nimble said...

It's hard to change your life. Those are some banal words that keep resonating for me. Most of us do what's easy and what doesn't take much thought. Trying to vary from a well-worn path or change an unconscious pattern takes lots of practice and the ability to tolerate discomfort and failure on the way.
Another opportunity to start again. That's another phrase that I don't enjoy much and that seems to be at the center of my experience with exercise.

Dale said...

Yeah, it's definitely hard. I used to think it was basically impossible, but I've grown more hopeful as the years go by. Some things stay intractable, but others things move more easily than I would have guessed. I can't tell which things are going to be which.