Thoughts on moving forward

19 05 2017

“You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.” –Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button screenplay

Each of us is on a journey. Some days it feels like an adventure. Other times it feels like a forced march through difficult and trying terrain. How we think of the journey, what emotional baggage we carry with us, directly impacts our perspective.

Weight and body issues have been a major story line in my personal narrative, as they are for so many of us. In this blog, I have chronicled my own process through losing half of my body weight (from just over 350 pounds to a low of 176) and, recently, of regaining a significant portion of that amount. Over these years, I’ve learned so much – one important lesson being not to judge anyone else’s journey.

Early in my weight loss process, I undertook a hunger challenge – raising money for hunger relief as I lost weight myself. When I asked friends to sponsor me for this challenge, one sent me an email saying, “I’ll sponsor you as long as you aren’t having weight-loss surgery.” I assured him that I wasn’t, and his response was to say, “I don’t agree with people having surgery to fix a problem because they don’t have the willpower to fix it themselves.”

At the time, his comment didn’t really bother me – probably because I agreed with him. I had not yet undertaken either the physical work nor the emotionally difficult excavation of my underlying issues that significant weight loss required. When I did do that work, I discovered that coming into a “right relationship” with myself, and my body, is about so much more than the actual weight. When I realized that I had been trying to keep my head above water in a sea of self-loathing and shame, I understood the loving compassion I had often extended toward others needed to be extended toward myself. Once I began doing that, I could see that my judgement about other people’s bodies or weight loss methods, my attitude about other peoples’ life journeys, had simply been a projection of my own nasty insecurities and fears.

Three weeks ago, my sister Gwen had gastric sleeve surgery. I am so PROUD of her! First, I am aware of how much energy it requires to undertake such a major step. There was the better part of a year spent in medical and psychological screenings and preparation. Then there was the surgery itself, not a minor consideration. Finally, there is the life-long behavior change required to make the rest of it worthwhile.

Gwen had to face her inner demons – I don’t know them because they are hers, but I have no doubt they are as powerful as my own! Many people never manage to face theirs, much less stare them down. Many people keep finding reasons for inaction when action feels daunting.

It requires courage to do these hard things.

In fact, it requires courage to move forward in our journeys – whether in bold steps or incremental. Our fears, our shames, our regrets, our guilts are voiced repetitively in our heads. Every day they tell us to avert our eyes, to distract ourselves, to comfort ourselves with things that may feel good but are not nourishing to our souls (food, habits, consumption, competition – whatever). Their real message is “Don’t.” Don’t try. Don’t change. Don’t think you’re special or worthy. Don’t take that next step – stay here where you may not be happy but at least you feel safe.

This is true for everyone – not just those of us with weight concerns. Once you see this clearly for even a brief span, you can’t really go back to judging other peoples’ journeys as if it is your business or as if you actually know their innermost secrets. Once you see this clearly for even a brief span, it is much more difficult to brutally judge yourself.

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”                                                                                                  –Brene Brown

 

 

 

 

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Treading Water: A Zoo Story

16 10 2014

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The moment we entered the polar bear exhibit, I saw him. A giant of a bear, up against the glass wall of his habitat’s pool, treading water. His powerful front paws paddled at a frantic pace, constantly working to keep him afloat. I was fascinated by his size, his concentration and his seeming oblivion to the spectators crowding the glass in front of him.

As we stood there, other visitors began commenting on the energy and exertion required to keep him afloat. The human tendency to project our own experience onto other beings asserted itself quickly. I heard comments such as, “Poor thing, he looks scared!” or “He looks so tired! Why doesn’t he just stop?” Most people in the room were enthralled by the bear treading water, myself included. I snapped several quick photos to capture the moment. However, there was a growing concern among the humans that something might be wrong. We knew nothing about polar bears, really. But if it were one of us in that pool, the activity we were witnessing would indicate a problem. So we engaged in blatant anthropomorphising, worried about the poor bear.

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Then I noticed a small child with her face pressed against a panel of glass several feet away. She giggled, then looked at her adult companion with awe-filled eyes. I moved over a step, and saw a second polar bear. This one was swimming laps, backstroking across the pool. On the far side, he executed a perfect turn (one even Michael Phelps would be jealous of), then swam low across the bottom of the pool, facing the glass. When he arrived at the glass panel, he practically rammed it with his nose, coming face-to-face with the child before swimming vertically up the glass to the pool’s surface. Once there, he put his powerful hind paws against the glass and pushed off.

Most of the spectators in the room remained fixated on the bear treading water. However, my friend Kate and I moved into the child’s spot when she and her adult moved on. This lap-swimming bear swam with a steady rhythm, each rotation exactly the same as the previous rotation. However, he appeared happy, playful, even joyful by comparison to the bear who shared his habitat.

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I put my forehead against the glass in order to come face-to-face with the bear as he arrived at the glass. We made eye contact, and I found myself giggling almost exactly as the child had previously. On another lap, I placed my hand on the glass so that it met his hind paw as it pushed off – the massive paw was more than double the size of my hand.

I was so fascinated I forgot to take any photos of the second bear. When Kate and I finally left the polar bear enclosure, I felt happy, infected by the positive energy we imagined flowing from the backstroking bear.

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All told, we spent maybe ten or fifteen minutes observing the polar bears that morning. But I’ve found myself thinking about them frequently and have, I think, discovered a meaningful allegory for myself in the swimming bears.

Like the first bear, I have spent a lot of time treading water – maintaining the status quo, remaining in the same place, holding steady. At times, treading water is a good thing – it allows us to conserve energy in the midst of turbulent times, can act as a respite from exhaustive or strenuous activity. But treading water can also be about fear – of the unknown, of change, of moving into the open water that signifies life’s many possibilities. The equivalent of treading water in our lives requires the same kind of frantic paddling we witnessed in the polar bear, as we avoid people, dodge opportunities, make excuses to remain the same. To remain unchanged and unchallenged – even if that also means we remain unhappy or unfulfilled.

The lap swimming bear, by contrast, was striking out boldly in a direction. On each circuit, there were similar actions, though each time he came along the pool’s floor toward the glass, there was the possibility of discovering something/someone new! His whole energy spoke of play, joy and willingness. In our lives, we have to accept that we don’t get to know everything in order to move forward. In order to experience the wide range of life and experiences we wish for and want.

As I’ve ruminated on these two polar bears, I’ve realized that each of them was working hard as they engaged in their different activities. They were likely burning similar calories, using similar reserves of energy. Yet their demeanors and the meaningfulness of what they were doing was experienced by those watching very differently. For us humans, treading water is an activity that outlives its usefulness fairly quickly. If we want our lives to have meaning, a sense of purpose, of growth, we have to swim. We have to strike out into unknown and uncharted waters. We must learn to do so with our eyes open and with a readiness to see whatever is waiting for us on the next turn.

I can’t speak for polar bears.  But for me, if staying in the same place or moving forward require roughly the same amount – though different kinds – of work, why not move? In the future, when I find myself treading water in life instead of proceeding in the direction of my dreams, I hope the images of those polar bears will come to mind. I hope they’ll remind me to pick a direction and go. I won’t know for sure where I’ll end up, but I’m certain that I’ll come face to face with something new – and in the process, become someone new.