Friday, October 7, 2016

Confessions of a Gymrat: Reflections on the pharisee, the tax collector, and that feeling we sometimes get that we need to "prove" ourselves. (Luke 18:9-14)

"God is the one before whom all the tensions, anxieties, stress, and worries of daily life and work melt away and cease. When we come before him, we can take off our pretensions and our comparisons. We can simply be who we are and be confident that we are loved."

It was 1:30 AM and I just got home from the gym. Yes, it was late, and I was there for close to three hours. I love Friday night workouts, as there’s barely anyone around in the place, so there isn’t much of a waiting time for any of the equipment. Not that it happens a lot at this particular gym which is simply huge and which has practically all the equipment—machines and free weights—one can ever want!

It’s one of these no-nonsense gyms that people who simply want to lift serious weights go to; no sections for those wanting to have fancy coffee or drinks, no wifi areas for people wanting to play with their tablets, no lounging areas for people to hang out and chat. It’s just a gym, a couple thousand square feet of gym. And I love it, especially on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. There’s no one around!

There were probably five other people. I counted; I was the sixth. Not that I talk to anyone anyway. As I told one of my students once, I go, I stretch and warm up, I lift heavy, I cool down, and I leave. Most of the folks who frequent this place do the same; there’s very little socializing going on, except perhaps for a couple here and there, or a group of friends from time to time.

There’s a different kind of ‘quiet’ and ‘serenity’ I get when I’m in the gym. As I was saying to a friend of mine recently, there I don’t think (except for remembering which routine I’m doing for the day), I don’t feel (except for the occasional physical pain of course, but that’s not what I’m referring to obviously), I don’t have to analyze or figure anything out. I just remember to keep safe, and I lift. Period. And when those endorphins kick in, I tell you, there’s nothing like it. You feel like you can go on forever. But then you realize you have other things to do, and you end your session.

For someone who spends most of the day engaged in all things cerebral, gym time isn’t only an escape, it actually allows my mind to rest, even for a few short hours. And given that I’m often sleep-deprived, my brain seeming to have lost its off-switch sometime when I was a student in Belgium, those ‘restful’ hours in the gym have become so valuable, so necessary in maintaining my sanity.

A couple of days ago, as I was getting ready to end my last set of bench presses, a rather overweight young man came up to me and asked if I was about done and if I could help him out and spot for him. (I’ve noticed him at the gym a few times before, most of the time picking up a light dumbbell or spending a few minutes trying out the different cardio machines.) I figured he was planning on lifting heavy that day, so I agreed.

Well, he lifted no more than 60 lbs, and spent a lot of time resting between sets, but since I was doing dumbbell flys at the next bench, I didn’t mind waiting for him to start his following set. But he sure was slow; and I noticed he spent more time staring and looking at what was going on around him than actually picking up the weights. I didn’t want to waste any more time, so when I got done with my sets, I got up, picked up my stuff and was heading to my next station when he started asking questions. 

"How long have you been working out?" 
“A few years”, I said. 
“How often are you here?”
“Six days a week, except when I’m really busy”. 
He then told me he had just started and would come to the gym only when he felt motivated. “Well, what motivates you?” I asked. 
“Not much, really”, he replied. 
“In fact, it’s often tough for me to even bring myself to workout here. If I didn’t need to lose weight, I probably wouldn’t come”. 
“Well, that’s understandable”, I replied. “Why is it tough coming here for you though?”
“I feel so out of place”, he said. “Look at the people here. Most of them are in good shape; I could barely lift 60 pounds!” 
“Why do you look then?” 
There was a pause in the conversation.
Then he asks, “What do you mean?” 
“Well, if you’re a beginner, it’s best not to look at those who have probably been working out much longer. It’ll only make you feel awkward, even a bit insecure.” 
“If you come and look and compare yourself to them, you’ll only feel bad about yourself, and will most likely give up. Don’t look; just keep working out, keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and before you know it, you’ll actually start looking like them”. 

We talked about a few more things, then I took off. [I was trying to be polite; but I really don’t like having conversations in the gym. It’s downtime for my brain, and I needed to get back to my workout.]

It’s true though. I’ve had a number of conversations with people who have told me that one of the things that prevents them from going to a gym to workout is feeling awkward and insecure once they’re there, because when they look around, they see all these folks who are in excellent shape and who seem to know a lot about using the machines and the weights all around them. But why look? Why compare oneself to them? Surely these folks were all beginners once. One has to start somewhere; so why compare oneself to them? (Which leads me to the point of Luke 18:9-14, the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector).

I was extremely competitive as a kid. I wanted to be the best in everything. I had to win and be better than everyone else. One time, I remember failing to make the cut in a school activity and feeling really bad that one of my friends did. I always thought I was better than he, and that made me feel worse.

I mentioned it to my mom and I can still remember her reply: “You’ll always be better than others in some things, and there will always be those who will be better than you at other things. Never compare yourself with others”. I never understood back then what she meant.

My competitive streak stayed with me pretty much throughout my childhood, and then I started feeling weary of being “on” all the time. I wanted peace in my life; I wanted to be rid of my restlessness, so I decided to enter seminary.

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being competitive; and I still don’t. Being competitive is a quality that serves one well in life. But I started getting tired of the anxiety, the tension, and the stress that came in its wake. I figured a more spiritual kind of life might rid me of these, would calm me down, and perhaps give my soul some peace.

Then in seminary I met Ken, a good friend and classmate. Unlike myself though, Ken was very pious and devout. He never seemed to doubt his faith or asked too many questions. He was very prayerful, and seemed quite at peace with himself. Every time I saw him in chapel during prayers and Mass, I found myself thinking, “Now why am I not like that? Why can’t I be more pious and devout and prayerful and holy like him? Why does my mind seem to race to so many questions a mile a minute?” 

I mentioned this to my spiritual director. “Why does he seem to be so certain about his faith? Why does he seem so peaceful and content with his vocation? Why does my brain seem to want to deconstruct everything?” 

My spiritual director’s reply reminded me of my mother’s words years ago: “Don’t compare yourself with anyone. That’s not what you are. And never begrudge others the gifts God has given them. You have your own to be thankful for and to make the most of. Just be yourself. God accepts you and loves you for who and what you are. Do not wish to be anything different. That wouldn’t be grateful”. 

By the time I was finishing my studies in seminary, the advice I got from my mother and my spiritual director began making sense. 

Before God, I simply had to be myself. 

The problem with the pharisee in the gospel story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, was not that he wasn’t all those things he said. The pharisee really was a good person. He wasn’t greedy, or dishonest or adulterous. He was obedient to God’s Laws and really did his best to be righteous. But he had two big problems. First he kept comparing himself to others. “I’m not like the rest of humanity”, he said. And second, he probably felt that he had to be “on” all the time. He had to constantly prove himself before God.

What an awful way to live! Comparing oneself with others makes a person either too puffed up with pride at being better than everyone else. Or it makes him disappointed and upset because he might not be as good as them.

A person who constantly compares himself with others will never be rid of the anxiety, tension and stress of feeling that he has to be constantly “on”. He will feel as if he has to prove himself all the time: to himself, to others, and even to God as the Pharisee does.

On the other hand, the tax collector wasn’t looking down on himself. We tend to forget that those words he utters really mean what they say. When he says, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner”—he was simply acknowledging the fact that he was indeed one. The man was just being realistic. I think that sometimes, when we read this passage, we read it with the thought that the line made him somehow “holy”. Far from it. It simply made him real, and most of all, humble.

Humility after all simply means being exactly the person that we actually are before God, no more and no less. Humble people are very realistic people.

Humility simply means accepting that life has its good days and bad days, and sometimes we’re good, sometimes we’re not. And God knows and accepts that. We don’t need to put on a show for him, or wear masks to make us look good before him.

The biggest problem with the Pharisee was that he couldn’t be honest before God. He always had to be “on”.

One of the important messages we can draw from the gospel story is that we can be ourselves before God. We don’t have to pretend to be who we aren’t; we don’t need to wear masks or put on a show. We can rest, feel at ease, and be free in his presence. It’s the Good News of our faith.

God is the one before whom all the tensions, anxieties, stress, and worries of daily life and work melt away and cease. When we come before him, we can take off our pretensions and our comparisons. We can simply be who we are and be confident that we are loved.

We don’t have to prove anything before God. He does require us to obey his Law, but we don’t have to get all bent out of shape proving that we do, because God knows us through and through. This was what the tax-collector understood quite well, and what someone like the Pharisee would probably never get.

[So the next time you feel you can’t go and enroll in a gym because it’s full of people who are in much better shape than yourself, stop thinking about them and just do it. And stick to your program! Trust me, before you know it, you’ll turn into the very person you were worried you could never be.]

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)