The Kindest View: A Tale of Two Graphs

Content note: This post discusses weight loss as a component of my overall personal fitness. It’s an illustration of a larger point, unrelated to weight loss, but feel free to skip if that topic is not helpful for you to read.

As a Woman of a Certain Age, I have reluctantly accepted that I have to be intentional about my health. Positive habits don’t just happen; they must be practiced. That doesn’t mean that I don’t still enjoy foods I love and occasionally overindulge (*cough*gorge*cough*). But at almost-50, I have a lot less margin than I used to when I was 20. Which means when I do make less-healthy nutrition choices, I try to get back on track as soon as possible. Consistency-ish, not perfection.

I’ve set a goal to run the JFK 50 miler in a few months. It’s a huge physical challenge, and not something I’m positive I can pull off, which makes it both exciting and scary. What I do know is I will have an easier time if I’m not carrying around extraneous weight, and if the weight I do carry is relatively high in muscle and low in fat.

So in addition to my running, I’m strength training several times a week. I’m also prioritizing lean quality protein and reducing carbs, though not eliminating them altogether (the joys of being an endurance runner—we need quality carbs aplenty!). I’m paying attention to how my clothes fit as a sign of what my body’s doing, and also taking some measurements from time to time to gauge body composition.

And… I weigh myself every day.

This is a controversial practice. I know it can be triggering for some people. Even those who aren’t triggered can get wrapped around the axle with the inevitable daily fluctuations: overreacting to a higher number by restricting calories beyond what is healthy, or even going on a food bender as reward for a “good” result. I’ve learned, gradually and still imperfectly, to look at the forest rather than the trees. What does that mean? It means I take the measurement most mornings, but I kinda blur my eyes mentally, if that makes sense. I pause before I even step on the scale to get myself in a neutral, detached place. I try to see the number as one indicator among many, and not even the most important one at that. How I’m feeling, what else is going on in my life, where I am in my menstrual cycle, how much stress I’m experiencing and where I’m carrying it physically—all of of these are more important than weight. I’m not always successful at keeping this perspective, but I find it essential to try. I saw it written some time ago, “Your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy.” I couldn’t agree more, which for me means holding lightly the number on the scale as just that—a number.

Anyway, lately my weight has been slowly trending down, which at this stage is what I want it to do. But this brings me to the point of my post. The app I use allows me to see the trend line over various periods of time: a week, a month, two months, etc. Here’s what I see when I look at the three-month view:

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A pretty good trajectory, eh?

By contrast, here’s the the year-long view:

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When I look at this graph, I remember every poor choice I made, every late-night snack session, every work trip in which I let all my healthy habits fly out the window. And no matter how positive the last several weeks have been, I want to berate myself for letting things get out of control.

This is not a kind way to treat myself.

I’ve been reading and doing a lot of processing around self-acceptance and self-kindness. My latest revelation has been the work of Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, especially her book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. This approach may come easily to some of you. It doesn’t come easily to me. I’m someone who sees life as one big self-improvement project. Which isn’t bad in itself, but when that self improvement is grounded in a sense of not being enough, it’s a problem.

When I look at the first graph, I feel empowered, like I’m taking control of my health in a positive way. There are fluctuations, but the overall trend is clear.

The second graph makes me want to give up.

The thing is, both graphs are “right.” The data are accurate, and you could argue that the year-at-a-view is more accurate because it contains more information, a longer-term picture. Sure, it makes me feel bad, but hey, numbers don’t lie, and that upward slope is the price I paid for making a series of bad choices. I made my bed, now I have to live with the consequences.

That’s my own self-punishing voice talking, but it’s not just me. There’s a real punitive undercurrent in our culture right now. Perhaps it’s always been there—a harsh, Puritanical edge, what Anne Lamott imagines as the purse-lipped high-school principal leafing unhappily through your files—but it seems especially acute at this moment in history. This line of thinking is very vigilant against anything that can be seen as inflated self-regard. Just look at how we sneer at people who express any weakness or vulnerable emotion: Snowflake.

In the prevailing view of this culture, it would be self-indulgent, even dishonest, of me to ignore the year graph and just focus on the one I happen to like.

Except the three-month graph inspires me and helps me want to live better, both in terms of good choices and accepting with compassion when I make less-than-great ones.

Tara Brach tells a story of a man who carried a lot of anger and resentment from his upbringing, to the point that he lashed out at his family regularly. He heard Brach’s teachings about self-kindness and acceptance as the path to healing, but he bristled: I don’t deserve that kindness, he pushed back. I’ve been way too hurtful to the people I’m supposed to love and support. In response, Brach simply asked him: Has that self-judgment helped you be less angry? Has the punitive approach chastened you and put you on a path toward wholeness?

…Is it working?

The questions were a revelation. Once he began seeing himself in the kindest possible way, he was able to do the work of transformation. Over time, he changed to the point that his wife was able to say, For the first time in our marriage, I’m not afraid of you. A miracle.

I shared all of this with a friend recently, who summarized it thus: “self-acceptance over self-improvement.” Not that we can’t grow in our capacity for grace and goodness. But we do so through self-kindness, not self-punishment. Self-acceptance doesn’t ignore our missteps, but it frames them in the midst of our own belovedness, and focuses on the part of the picture that helps us live happy, joyous and free.

It’s been a minor revelation to realize that I can simply choose the kinder view, and that I don’t need anyone’s authorization to do it.

I Am Neither Slow Nor Fast.

54274601 Not long ago I was speaking to a group of pastors and church musicians. The focus of the conference was on small congregations--their particular gifts and challenges.

It's easy sometimes for small churches and their leaders to feel down about themselves. They often feel an abundance of the family vibe, but a scarcity of resources. They may have lots of down-to-earth authenticity but lack the programs and "flash" of larger churches.

After the presentation a man came up to me, thanked me for my comments, and handed me a small piece of paper. "This quote has really helped me keep things in perspective," he said.

Here it is:

Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less.

This is former poet laureate Robert Hass, paraphrasing the poet Basho. And I can see why this colleague has been carrying it around. It's been working on me for the past couple of months. I love the distinction between loving the world and desiring it. To love the world is to love what is, to experience contentment and joy. But desire... desire is insatiable. We are never satisfied.

Love is a hand, relaxed and open. Desire is a clutching fist.

Through the lens of this quote, I've been seeing anew how much of consumer culture centers around comparing ourselves to others---usually in a way that draws us up short.

Too fat. Too old. Not wealthy enough. Not white enough. Less popular. Not as talented.

Or we compare ourselves to our past selves:

I wish I had that body back. Look how many more wrinkles I have!  My marriage was more romantic back then. 

Of course it's fine to want to better ourselves. Last year I had only one running goal: to get faster. I didn't have specific time goals, I just wanted to improve. And I did: I achieved PRs (personal records) in three recent races of various distances recently. There's lots more room to grow, and I hope to finish the Marine Corps Marathon faster than I did Disney, even though it's a tougher course.

But why? If I'm pursuing these goals out of desire, I will never be satisfied. I will always be slow compared to someone. But if I set goals out of love for the sport and for discovering what this 43 year old body can do, I can't lose.

The running group I belong to uses Facebook to set up group runs and share running successes and challenges with one another. Without betraying the confidentiality of that space, we constantly check each other when using words like "slow." Slow, compared to what? To whom? Everyone's slow compared to Shalane Flanagan. Everyone's fast compared to someone sitting on the couch.

Part of what adjectives of scale do is put us in our place. Many of you know Brene Brown, professor of social work, writer, researcher on shame and wholeheartedness, and big sister I wish I'd had. She told Krista Tippett not long ago that shame hinges in two basic thoughts:

1. Not good enough. 2. Who do you think you are?

 

I wonder whether these messages are at work when the mama runners (including me) share a happy milestone, but feel compelled to add a qualifier: "I hit a great pace on this run--for me." "I ran X miles this month---but I know others are running even more." It's the tendency to downplay our own belovedness and to be much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Other people's achievements are celebrated. Our own come with an asterisk.

Much better to say, "I felt strong on the hills." "I've improved a lot." "That was a crappy run, but I'll try again tomorrow." "I'm running X miles at Y pace this weekend; who wants to join me?" Much better to see ourselves as we are, and to describe that as faithfully and graciously as we can.

Captain Obvious: I'm not just talking about running anymore.

Sooner or later, whether due to age or other physiological factors, I will plateau and decline. And that's as it should be. Continuous growth is not sustainable for our planet; continuous improvement is not sustainable for a body, either. So I'm working on embracing the spirit of Gandalf, whose cheeky comment to Frodo (above) feels a lot like radical contentment. I am neither slow nor fast. I am the speed I am meant to be right now.