New Leaf Counseling Group, LLC I Diverse Counselor & Therapist Team I Charlotte, NC
Recently I was sent an email forward entitled: “The New Year in Fitness: Exercise, Add Intensity, Live to See Another Year.” It was filled with scientific evidence that intense exercise could “change the arc of our lives.” I became so very tired reading the article, because I understand this mentality all too well. I believe all of us have heard that internal voice our entire lives: Exercise will heal you. More intensity will help you. If you exercise more, you will feel better. If you amp up the intensity in your life, things can only get better.
Neither one of these things were true for me, and they were incredibly destructive messages for many years of my life. In my twenties, in the throes of dislocation and depression, I ran so often I developed shin splints that took years to heal. I did 20-30 hot yoga classes a week. I rarely slept. I understand intense exercise. It certainly changed the arc of my life, but I wasn’t happy, and my soul was not at rest, nor at home within me.
New Year’s is a time when the gyms are flooded with new devotees, determined to change themselves, their bodies, and their lives. This is my rebuttal: instead of a thousand new recruits at the gym on January 1st, you know what I would prefer? I would prefer a thousand people choosing to spend a day defiantly ignoring the voice inside that says they’re not enough. I would prefer that even a single person be able to look in the mirror and stop seeing the flaws in their body. I would prefer that January 1st be declared a day in which every single person find some way to be gentle with themselves. On January 1st I think we should all say, “Today we find warm blankets and rub lotion on each other’s hands and tell each other stories about how much we are loved and listen to our favorite music and eat together.”
Because what is truly intense, and what no data will support but which will seat your soul in your body and give your spirit life and breath is radical self-awareness. This includes forgiveness and compassion: and the hardest person we ever find to forgive is often ourselves. We have so much cruelty toward ourselves that we lie awake at night and destroy our lives in so many different ways, small to large, because it is almost literally impossible to believe that we are enough. Enough for anyone. What message does it send to encourage “harder, better, faster, stronger,” whether in exercise, or in our careers, or in parenthood, or any other aspect of our multifaceted lives? Is that message always beneficial? It was not so for me.
As for me, the “intensity” of my life is now measured in other things: the love that I feel when the breath of my dog moves across my arm and I realize he has transformed from being a terrified, underfed weakling to a creature of pure and perfect joy and love. The “exercise” of my life is measured in finding a turn of phrase to make my clients laugh even in a very dark situation. It’s not always about marathons and ribbon finish lines. It’s not about giving every ounce of life blood to every person who asks for it. And I’m not saying exercise isn’t important, because it is; what I’m saying here is meant to provide a counterpoint. Here’s a beautiful passage from the Gospel of Thomas (that comes from my academic background studying ancient Christianity) that perhaps makes my point more clearly:
“Jesus said, "If they say to you, 'Where did you come from?', reply to them, 'We have come from the light, from the place where the light has come into being by itself and was made manifest.' If they say to you, 'Is it you?', say, 'We are its children; we are the elect of the living father.' If they ask you, 'What is the sign of your father in you?', say to them, 'It is movement and rest.'"
We have to have both. Movement and rest. So not too much complacency, and not too much intensity. You could also think of the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis, or Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Any balance between driving yourself to do too much, and shutting down to a numbness that disavows your being in this world.
Our bodies are beautiful, complex organisms, and we are integrated within them. But we cannot treat them like machines, or like objects that are not functioning as we wish. The road to flourishing as a complete human being may not be steps on a treadmill and the latest diet. Perhaps it is kindness toward the skin that covers you from injury and heals like a magic trick I could never think to create. Remember our living bones are spongy to the touch but impossibly strong as they hold up the weight of our lives. Perhaps it is acceptance that our organs work tirelessly to keep us moving through our days: our lungs caressing in and out, while our heart sings its old brag, "I am, I am."
Touch down in your body and always live in movement and rest. These are steps much harder than minutes on a treadmill, and they lead, eventually, to the act of saying, “I am enough.” That step is the first step toward the mountaintop of self-worth to a good many people. Like a physical mountain there are base camps and high cliffs and some folks need guides. The medieval mystic Teresa of Ávila had it right: we have interior castles.
I’ll leave you with something I found from Brené Brown about New Year’s Resolutions.
"At the close of every year I ask myself four questions:
1. What do I want more of in my life?
2. How do I let go of what’s no longer serving me?
3. What will make me feel more alive? Braver?
4. At the end of every day and at the end of every year, I need to know that I contributed more than I criticized. How have I contributed and what will that look like moving forward?"
Happy New Year to all of you. And, above all, remember to be kind to yourself.
If you are interested in healing trauma, consider contacting our diverse counselor and therapist team of professional clinicians at New Leaf Counseling Group in Charlotte, NC at 704-774-3078 to schedule a free initial consultation - or click here to book an appointment online. We are ready and waiting with room for you to GROW.