This blog post is going to seem incredibly out of character, and probably won’t seem like the sort of post that I typically write, but I feel like I have to write it. Normally, I am very laid back and tolerant of the differences that exist between myself and the rest of the world. I understand that not everyone will be like me, and the differences that make each of us unique are also the things that make this world so beautiful.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to give an eighth grade retreat at the local Catholic grammar school, and I gave a short workshop centered on Psalm 139. This has always been one of my favorite Scripture passages, and hands-down, my favorite psalm. I spent some time reminding the students that they are each given different gifts, and this is what makes us unique. There will never be another ‘me’ in this world. There will never be another ‘you’ either. Each of us is called by name, called to a glorious life and a unique mission. We are each called to walk different paths, but each of us is invited to make this journey with Christ at our sides. And even if the paths are different, the destination is (hopefully) the same for all of us: heaven.
So yeah, I know that everyone is different, and that we all have different passions and gifts. I know that some of us are passionate about art. Others are passionate about science. Still others are passionate about literature. We all have our passions, and even if I don’t have the same passions as you, I still respect and admire the drive that you have. I know people who spend hours in their bedroom playing guitar, and others who can spend hours reading anything from fiction to history to theology. I also know people who dedicate hours of their days to exercise and experiment with newly discovered healthy cuisine. I might not have an instrumental bone in my body. I might not have the stamina to read nonstop for hours on end. I might not have the motivation to spend hours in the gym, or on the Internet searching for new recipes to try. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire those who do. I know that I have my own passions, my own gifts, and that not everyone can write as consistently as I do. We all have different gifts, but it is the same Body.
As I said, I know plenty of people who have very unique gifts. Sometimes I learn this about people while talking to them; other times I learn it through Facebook. I can sort my news feed into three categories: religion or politics, life accomplishments, and fitness. More often than not, my Facebook news feed is overflowing with articles from Catholic news agencies, my friends’ latest feats (and recently, their children’s), and articles about why everyone needs to join Crossfit, go organic, or cut gluten from their diets. In fact, I would say that this last group takes up more than half of the contents of my news feed. I admire the passion of these people, but it’s gotten to the point that I’m sick of hearing about it all the time.
Don’t get me wrong- I think it’s important to eat well and exercise regularly, but I don’t think you need to bombard my news feed- and my daily life- with the latest diet or exercise fad. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the ever-changing fads, none of these will be the key to healthy living. One month, it’s gluten, the next it’s dairy, followed by meat. There always seems to be something that we’re not supposed to eat, and it never seems to stay the same. One month, everyone needs to run to stay healthy, but just a month later, apparently it’s weight-lifting that is the key to staying healthy. For a month or a few months, everyone seems to agree about the best way to stay healthy, but then everyone changes their minds. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from news feed observations, it’s that everyone agrees on this month’s “key to healthy living,” but no one seems to agree on anything for very long.
And it’s not just on Facebook that I see it. I hear it at work, in the mall, while I’m waiting in line at the supermarket. It’s on TV, in the newspapers, on the covers of magazines. And if that’s not enough, it’s also on everyone’s minds and the topic of so many conversations. You just can’t seem to get away from it. I go to eat breakfast, and there’s an article in the newspaper about it. I go to work, and it’s the focus of our conversation several times a day. I go to CVS to pick up milk, and it’s on the cover of every magazine and at least one person is talking about it.
Not long ago, I overheard a conversation, which I still consider the catalyst of this post. Yes, I’ve become so tired of hearing about everyone’s fitness crazes and newest gluten-free recipes, but I tolerate it, because I know that this is something that my friends are passionate about, and everyone needs something to get them up in the morning. I have my blog and my journals; other people have their gym and favorite Paleo websites. I’m sure there are plenty of times where people get tired of hearing about my job, or my blog, or my latest book, but they listen anyway. They see how excited I get, and they want to encourage that joy. Even if they don’t understand its source, they understand the value of joy. Playing guitar or working out might not bring me joy, but if it brings other people joy, and therefore I must find the good in it. Music is good. Health is good. But obsession is never good, and sometimes I wonder how many people have moved beyond finding joy in fitness, and have become enslaved to it.
While I was waiting in line to pay for milk a few weeks ago, I overheard the conversation between two women standing just in front of me. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but they were talking loud enough where it would have been nearly impossible to overhear the gist of what they were saying. The two women looked to be in their mid-thirties, and they were each dressed in work-out attire. This is fairly common in my area, and even I have arrived at the local CVS after my morning walk on more than one occasion. They were each carrying a basket filled with what I presumed would be the ingredients for that night’s dinner: an assortment of meat and vegetables. There was nothing at first odd about the situation, but then I realized what they were talking about, and suddenly I saw them both in a very different light.
They were hunched over a magazine, flipping through pages of gluten-free recipes. As they did so, they pointed out the most appetizing ones, and a stray comment reached my ears.
“I was so bad last night. It was my daughter’s birthday, and the cake was just too good to pass up. It was just a sliver, but I shouldn’t have. I was so bad, but I’ll make up for it today.”
This was not the first time that I had heard a comment like this one. Frankly, it was a remark that I was getting sick of hearing. I seem to hear it everywhere, and there are just so many things wrong with that statement. As I waited to pay, I found myself dissecting the comment, highlighting all the flaws in what it suggested.
There is nothing wrong with having a slice of cake on your daughter’s birthday. Unless you are diabetic or have some medical reason for avoiding the cake, please just eat it and don’t complain about how bad you are. You’re not bad. The cake is not bad. You are you, and the cake is just cake. You’re probably good too, and I’m sure the cake is. That’s why you’re in this dilemma after all. So please, just eat the cake.
You are doing nothing wrong when you have cake on your daughter’s birthday, trust me. In fact, you’re doing everything right. What do you think you’re telling your daughter when you give her a nice, big slice of cake, but avoid it yourself because you “don’t want to be bad.” You’re telling her that she’s bad. She’s eating the cake, and eating the cake is bad. You don’t want to eat the cake because you don’t want to be bad. She ate the cake, so she must be bad. So for the sake of your daughter’s self-esteem, just eat the cake.
And don’t feel guilty about it. Like I said, you’ve done nothing wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with eating cake. I’m sure if Jesus was given cake, He’d eat it. And He’d call it good. So do what Jesus would do, and just eat the cake.
Making yourself feel guilty about eating the cake is not going to make anyone feel better. This is a beautiful moment between you and your daughter, so don’t ruin it by mourning that a slice of delicious chocolate cake is ruining your otherwise perfect day. It’s not. The cake does not have the power to make you miserable; only you do. If you allow yourself to feel guilty for eating that birthday cake, you are letting it control you. As you already know, you have control over what you eat and what you don’t eat, but you also have control over how you will feel about that.
When you allow yourself to feel guilty about what you eat, you are turning something good- the cake- into something bad. It goes from being something inherently, and deliciously, good, into something that controls you, that has power over you. Food should never control you. Diets should never control you. Even fitness should never control you.
I’ve encountered plenty of people who are controlled by food. For some, it’s blatantly obvious that they struggle. When they start eating, they struggle to stop. When they get depressed or anxious, they eat to make the pain go away. They have become addicted to food, and they struggle to regain control over their lives. If we don’t know any of these people personally, we have at least heard about them. We hear their stories, and we know that food controls them. In these cases, it seems like a no-brainer.
But I think there are more people controlled by food than people might assume. I believe there are people who struggle with their relationship with food, but have an easier time hiding that fact. Or else they don’t realize that they’re controlled by food, and no else has the guts or the wisdom to tell them the truth.
Well, here’s the truth, as I see it. If you can’t have cake on your daughter’s birthday, you’re controlled by food. If you can’t go out for ice cream with friends without feeling guilty, you’re controlled by food. If you can’t go a day without working out and not feel anxious about that fact, you’re controlled by food. If food, diets, and exercise are your most frequent topics of conversation, I would venture to say that you’re controlled by food.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who are enslaved to food and don’t even realize it. When people are obese, we tell them that they’re controlled by food. When people are anorexic or bulimic, we tell them that they’re controlled by food. But I think there are a lot more people in the world that are controlled by food. We might not acknowledge it- the world might even praise these unhealthy lifestyles- but that doesn’t discount the truth. And the truth is, we’re sick.
On a regular basis, we are bombarded with messages that we need to lose weight, look a certain way, satisfy modern society’s ridiculous standards of beauty. Every magazine cover advertises ways to look thinner, dress to hide our imperfections, feel better about ourselves. But they have it all wrong. We do not need to be thin; we need to healthy. We do not need to look thinner; we should just aim to look comfortable in our own skin. We do not need to hide our flaws; we need to realize that there is nothing wrong with us. We are beautiful just the way we are. We are loved just as we are. Magazines promise that if we eat better and exercise more, we’ll feel better about ourselves. That might be true, but they actually have it backwards. If you love yourself, you will eat better and exercise more, not because you want to feel better about yourself, but because you already feel good and want to continue to feel that way. If you learn to love yourself first, everything else will fall into place. Being thinner and dressing better will not make you more beautiful. Loving yourself will, and that’s the kind of beauty that will last forever.
So next time you’re invited to have cake or ice cream, go for it, and don’t feel guilty. You deserve it. And smile as you’re doing it, because you are beautiful.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!