The Physical by George Merrill

Share

I’ve often wished that I had the temperament of one of my dearest friends. He is faithful in all that he undertakes. He eats sensibly, exercises regularly, never smoked, drinks moderately, prays often and at specific times of day. He never seems put upon when others ask him to perform tedious tasks on their behalf. He is as virtuous a man as I have known – very credible – and although it does him no honor for me to say this, I do envy him his God-given disposition. He has an amiable relationship to himself. Mine tends to be more erratic.

A psychiatrist I know understands envy in this way: if the virtues that we see and admire in others were suddenly bestowed on us, we’d have no idea what to do with them.

I thought about this recently after my annual physical with my primary physician and cardiologist. Overall, I’m doing well. A problem has arisen in the last few years: I weigh more than I should, now to the tune of about twenty- five pounds. Of the invasive and other undignified diagnostic procedures I have been subject to over the years, including the universally loathed colonoscopy, the diagnostic prescription I find most difficult to hear is from not just from one but from both of my physicians; I must eat less and exercise more. At least in undergoing a colonoscopy, I’m out cold so the doctor can say anything and it wouldn’t bother me.

I find ‘eat less’ particularly hard to hear from my cardiologist. I don’t mean that he is not kind and competent. He says pretty much the same as my primary does. It’s just when he holds up one hand, points to the palm of it and with the other hand, inscribes a tiny circle, indicating this should be the size of the portions I need to be eating, I despair. I’m sure his hands are as large as any adult male but when he illustrates this particular prescription, like some ominous signing to a deaf man, I cringe. His hands seem to suddenly become diminutive, like a doll’s, and I think to myself how can he expect so much from me when he promises so little.

Both physicians recommended more exercise, one, advising specifically that walking one hour a day was best. Now this prescription did not please me much either but it was one I thought I could get behind far more than the starvation diet that the cardiologist advised. In one sense, I was prescribed two pills to address my ills; eat less and exercise more. I chose exercise over diet simply because I love to eat. But wait – isn’t contemporary medicine encouraging us to be a pro-active voice in designing our own treatment, tailoring it to the way we wish to live?

I write this to demonstrate how our unruly wills and affections can seduce us. Habits of the stomach for the aging can be even more compelling than those of the heart for the young. My reasoning: far better to burn those calories away in exercise than never to have savored them at all. I see it as unconscionable to waste their sweetness. And then, too, the calories would be gone for good that way, and would not remain available to compromise someone else’s’ health. Actually I’d be serving others.

Here’s the rub. Now, already two days successfully into my new resolve, the issue has come down to how much mettle my resolve actually contains. My challenge lies, not so much in knowing what has to be done, but in the showing up for the doing- boots on the ground, if you will. Am I really exercising for the right reasons? Am I trying to avoid the issue of eating less by exercising more? Yes! Only now I have crafted a rationale.

The great essayist, Montaigne, knew all the tricks that our minds play on us. He wrote, “Virtue will not be followed except for her own sake and if we sometimes borrow her mask for some other purpose, she promptly snatches it from our face.”

I heard a story once about a man, a recovering alcoholic who has enjoyed an otherwise successful thirty-year sobriety. He told about the games his mind used to play on him when he wanted what he wanted, but didn’t want to fess up to it.

Early in his recovery career he went into a bar and ordered six shots of bourbon. He had learned from AA that the first drink is too many, and a thousand is not enough. Just don’t take that first drink was the cardinal rule.

He claimed he never did.

He’d start drinking the the sixth shot, the last one placed on the bar. Then when he was down to the first, left it, then ordered six more, again drinking the sixth one the bartender put on the bar but never taking the first one. By the time he was wasted he had eight shots left on the bar, having left only the first one’s he correctly boasted that he never drank.

Here’s as honest as I can be at this moment in my own struggle with myself. I love eating too much right now to reduce my intake to those Spartan portions that were prescribed. I think I could knock off chocolate and deserts too (by knock off I mean eschewing not chewing) without experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Scrapple should go and the skin of southern fried chicken I believe I could do without.

But the immediate challenge is exercise: what about a rainy day, or an extremely cold day, or one of those hot and sultry days on the Shore that can melt macadam on the roads. Worse still, when I just don’t feel like exercising at all. Then my unruly mind and its perverse wishes will begin plotting to defeat my resolve.

It’s time like this I envy my virtuous friend.

“Be sober, be vigilant,” writes Peter in his first epistle, “for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

It’s not the roaring lion I’m worried about; it’s the whisper of temptation.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that my wife, Jo, copy edits my manuscripts for publication. She rarely challenges content, just cleans them up. She took issue with the number I claimed I was overweight. Normally she’s a great editor although she can get picky about details.

I stay resolutely focused on the big picture.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

*

Letters to Editor

  1. Barbara Harrison says:

    Try using a smaller plate (6″) and only one plateful a meal.

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.