On December 31st, 2005 I sat at a truck stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin on County Rd. GV looking down at a bacon cheddar omelet. It was a three-egg creation, complete with hash browns, four slices of buttered marble-rye toast, a garnish of parsley, and a decorative half-moon of orange. I stared at my meal in all its greasy-spoon glory, and I said, “God. This needs to change.”
At the time, I was a larger man, weighing in at perhaps 260 pounds. Not eight months earlier, I had graduated from Saint Louis University ten pounds heavier, due in large part to my preferred suppers of buffalo chicken sandwiches, fries, and five of the cheapest domestic bottles I could buy, all at a campus sponsored bar and grill called “Wackadoo’s” (for the record, I always ordered a side salad…and then slathered it in bleu cheese dressing). The residuals of that kind of consumption came crashing down upon me that New Year’s Eve.
I was happy enough. I had successfully completed my first semester as a graduate student, and moved confidently toward the spring, a new assistantship awaiting me. In spite of my weight I didn’t actually have a body-image problem. I embraced my beauty by going shirtless as often as possible. My friends poked fun of my weight and I took on the “big guy” identity with joy and confidence. But in that truck stop, contemplating that omelet, I knew I had to change my ways.
Nine year later, I’m a lighter, stronger, and healthier version of myself. I know my way around a gym. I don’t have to lean heavily on the seat and roll left to get out of whatever vehicle I’m driving. I’ve lifted hundreds of pounds at a time, run a few half-marathons, and even biked from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to San Diego. These, and many more, are the fruits of the choice I made in that truck stop nearly a decade ago.
But, alas, not all is for the better. I used to accept myself with jovial freedom and now I have a body image problem. I’m also way harder on myself—a day of decadence is defeating and one drink too many often leads to an emotional hangover, if not a real one.
I am constantly considering ways that my life could be better. I could be a dedicated and unwavering vegetarian. I could choose to never, ever again smoke a cigarette. I could commit without fail to pray the Liturgy of the Hours three times a day, every day. I could start getting up at 6:00 AM, exercise, shower, eat, and pray, all before 8:00 AM, and then, get three and a half hours of studying in before an early lunch of soup and salad at 11:30. All these changes would lead to a happier, healthier life. But I love carnitas burritos and bratwurst. I enjoy the satisfaction of a perfect smoke ring once in a while. There is always academic reading and other mundane stuff to do. But I like staying up until 1:00 AM watching Hulu, YouTube, and Netflix.
When I consider the changes I could make, I know what I want, and I just don’t do it. I don’t make decisions for my future self–the self that looks back on a day and smiles comfortably, every opportunity taken, every challenge well met–the self I know God has in mind for me.
A math teacher I once knew said, “The hardest part is starting.” In all God’s mystery, there is a constant invitation to begin again, to rewire, to reinvent, to reignite, to repower. It has to start sometime, and that time is right now. For years now, God has been telling me, “Eric, you have everything you need. You are good enough.” If only I could accept this affirmation and encouragement. The trick is trusting that grace abounds, and that by deeply hoping it will come crashing into my heart, it becomes clear that it has been there the entire time. I am loved unconditionally. There is no ‘future self’ for God.
As I continue to begin this new year, I set aside the specificity of the vast majority of my resolutions, and hope simply that when something deep stirs within me, and I realize that change is necessary, I am able to do something about it. All that change brings may not be good, but something will be better. That something, whether it’s a new way of praying, eating, sleeping, interacting, or loving, will allow me to respond to the invitation to depth that God offers. As Anthony de Mello says, “Peace is only found in yes.”
I say yes to the weight room and the wait. I say yes to the racing heart, strengthened by exercises physical and spiritual. I say yes to the tension of intention. It is the sloppy, omelet-filled, smoke screened, prayer neglected, slept-in self that I bring to God each and every day, saying, “Yes, it is this way, but it doesn’t have to be.” We try. Sometimes, we do better for ourselves in small and simple ways. And sometimes, we fail. But, as I heard from another Jesuit that I greatly admire, we must not be afraid to make brilliant mistakes. It is, in part, through great effort that we succeed in receiving God’s love. And it’s a great effort to realize that the self God wants is the self that I am.
The cover image, from Flickr user andy wagstaff, can be found here.