The Boy At The Beach….and How I Killed Him
How being fat and being me became the same thing
by Michael Spencer
I have a picture of myself, around 13 years old I think, standing with my mom and her brothers on the beach of a lake in Michigan. It’s a handsome photo. I’m as tall as my mom, and skinny as a rail. I remember that summer, and that beach trip like it was yesterday. I also remember that I felt like I was fat, and I didn’t want to be in a swimsuit at the beach because I felt like such an overweight spectacle.
Though I didn’t start to actually become overweight until college, I cannot recall a time I didn’t feel that I was fat. My parents weren’t fat, nor was anyone in the family. How I came to this conclusion is mysterious, but also more obvious to me than it was in the past, though the knowledge hasn’t helped.
Today I am the largest person in my family. I’ve steadily gained weight from the time I was in college, with only one major reversal. Slowly, over time, I became fat, and being more than a hundred pounds overweight today constantly asserts itself as one of the most dominating aspects of my life.
I’ve come to accept the results of this problem. I have a closet full of clothes I can’t wear. When we visit our families, there is never much doubt what will be the topic of discussion if I step out for a while. If a student gets angry at me, I know what one of the first words is going to be. My legs hurt. I don’t have a suit that I can get into anymore. Walking a mile is major effort, with my back and legs screaming for rest. In pictures, I don’t look like I picture myself in my mind. An honest look in a mirror is a difficult thing for me to do.
Being fat has become synonymous with being me, and therefore, close to the center of my existence, is a core of constant self-loathing because of my weight. I live with a cloudy awareness of having failed in something almost everyone else succeeds at, seemingly effortlessly. It permanently diminishes me in my own mind’s eye. I live in a culture that never stops talking about the problem that I am most aware of in myself, and its message is that I am a loser, both in appearance and in health. Even Christian bookstores and television tell me that I have failed. I can say there there are few minutes in my conscious existence in which some aspect of being overweight is not on my mind.
Why would I write an essay about this subject? Is this the ultimate whine from a selfish and narcissistic member of the victim class? Am I wanting advice or sympathy? No, I’m writing to try and face this part of myself, and to tell myself the truth about it. I’m trying to build a foundation for repentance. If it’s not interesting to you, I’m sorry. (“Where’s the funny stuff?”) I’ll make it up to you next essay.
My humanity, my spirituality, my relations, my work, my thinking, my life; they are all substantially influenced by my obesity. Increasingly, I have to be honest and admit that my weight is the platform from which I exclude God, hurt people, live my life and and choose my sins. Being fat has made sin easy; sins of every kind, and sins that have proven the hardest to mortify and remove from my life. My fear of dealing with my weight is a reflection of my fear of dealing with my deepest self, and who and what I am. It is a fear of the past, and I am sure it will one day become a fear of the future. I hide in my weight, and I foolish think I can hide from my weight.
My weight is, I believe, one of the primary spiritual issues in my life. It is why I sleep too much and work too little. It is why I run from opportunities to lead and make excuses about my performance. It’s why I feel ashamed but blame others. It’s why I dread dressing up in a suit and being the adult I should be at my age and station. It’s why I shy away from friendships, and project rejection on others. It’s why I am painfully selfish. It’s why I’m often grouchy, mean and overly sensitive for no reason. It’s why I’m jealous of others. It’s a source of resentment at God.
From my struggle with my weight- non-struggle might be better terminology- has come a conviction that I am a failure, and will never succeed as a worthy human being as others have. It’s the source of a perpetual belief that others do not like me. It’s the root of constant embarrassment, considerable lying and endless obsession on what is simple for other people: eating. It is the feeling that everyone I know is just a few moments away from rejecting me because of what I have become. It’s why I am not surprised I’ve never had a good pastorate, and why I didn’t finish my doctorate, why I’ve wound up in the middle of nowhere teaching and preaching to people who are forced to come but won’t drive to hear me on their own.
As I approach my 48th year, I’ve come to the place that I do not hear talk of weight as I did even just a few years ago. I am starting to see that this is me. It’s not coming off. It is not a disease or an accident. It is the self I have made of the person God created. It is me, and it’s going to be me from here on out. Because my weight has, at least for now, not brought about any serious health issues, I have not come to fear it as others do, and to take drastic steps to control it. I have friends who have resorted to stomach reduction surgery. While my weight is much less than theirs, I still struggle with feelings of resentment when I see them losing in a year what I have accumulated in more than 30. Mostly, I don’t care as much as they do, because if you told me I could lose 100 pounds through surgery, I would never say yes.
Is my body different? I can’t help but think so, but even as I say that, I am aware that it is the easiest and cheapest of excuses. Years ago I read Milo in Bloom County explain it all perfectly: “Eat less. Exercise more.” I’ve done neither. But what I’ve done is alternately plain and mysterious to me. If anything ever proves that life is the accumulation of small decisions, my weight is the evidence. While there have been episodes of conscious overeating in my life, there have been many other times when I ate more than reasonably, and it made little difference. I try not to ask God if I am different. My traditions teach me to blame myself, and so does reason and research. But emotionally, it all leaves me sad, not motivated. Just sad. Why me? I know most of the answer, and hate it.
Are my thoughts different? About food, and activity, and appearance? This is really the rock that is hard to look under. Sometime in my childhood I was ridiculed for being larger in the chest than other boys. From that teasing, and a general lack of athleticism and activity that came from having an invalid father, I began to think of myself as fat. It really was “fat in my head.” I physically saw myself as large when I was, in fact, thin.
My family was poor and usually said no to things that other boys enjoyed, like fast food and junk food. So in my adolescence and teenage years I found ways and opportunities to eat as I wanted. Food became pleasure, not nutrition. My rebellions weren’t with drugs and alcohol, but with food and freedom. When times were tough in our family, mom would cook. It was comfort. When dad was away, we went to restaurants. When dad was home. we often ate angry, and I would find ways to eat more afterward. When I was with friends, I ate more than they did to prove something about myself. I used my first jobs as opportunities to eat when, what and as much as I wanted. Of course, college and beyond gave me the freedom to eat irresponsibly, and I did.
As an adult, I found myself in a profession where I was constantly doing for others. Eating was what I did for me. It was comfort and selfishness. It was being a “man.” It was having the money to spend. I ate in secret. I ate in the car. I ate, and I got bigger. Why didn’t my vanishing closet ever stop me, and motivate me to reverse this behavior? I really don’t know.
I know all this history and some insight. A greater puzzle is why I was never able to stay physically active at the same time I was eating. As a teenager, I played basketball every day, and rode my bike all over town. But when I got a car and a job, my physical activity became rare. I tried to run, to play in leagues, but I was never good, or persistent. My the time I was married, I had an inertia and resistance to exercise that is mind boggling.
Perhaps at no point do I confront my own sinfulness as much as my own refusal to exercise. I refuse- stubbornly- to do anything active. The reason is my despair about my weight. I feel that it makes no difference. My mind and body seem to fight every effort to be more active. After 30 years of gaining weight, I am afraid of the physical stress, and I am afraid of making the effort, but not losing any weight. If I lose ten pounds, so what. It’s coming back as 12 pounds.
In my mind, there is a stronghold that fears exercise like almost nothing else. The shrinks would find that I am still back in junior high gym class, scared to death of being asked to do a chin up and climb a rope, being put down by Coach Rick Nash, who was the very image of Satan to me. Once I escaped this, I never went back, and aside from my brief interest in basketball, I can say that every kind of exercise has been sheer misery to me. Misery to be avoided.
Now I fill my life with sedentary work. I can stay at a desk or in front of a computer or with a book almost all day. I’ve become someone who isn’t active. No one challenges that. I can feel the coming pains in my back and legs, but I can’t overcome this mental and physical fear of activity. I have the time, I even have a marvelous place. But I am now more afraid of a heart attack than of my lack of exercise. I’ve dug a hole and I am afraid to get out of it, even it is inevitable that staying here will hurt or kill me. I have an occasional irregular heartbeat and I take blood pressure meds. They provide easy reasons to do nothing. But I think about what is happening to me as my muscles aren’t used and I continue to eat normal meals. It’s not encouraging.
I have friends who have dealt with weight by spiritual means. Fasting. Prayer. Bible study programs. Lots of God-talk. I picture myself taking my lunch time to do something else, like prayer or walking with a teaching tape. I picture myself replacing food with studying Greek or a good short walk around the track. But whatever rut I am living in resists these good ideas.
My physical deadness and my weight problem live peacefully together, and continue conspiring to convince me that I am all right, all the while leaving me hating myself. I could be talking about drug addiction and it wouldn’t be any less paralyzing and puzzling.
My current dilemma comes on the heels of one of the two successful weight loss programs I’ve ever done. Without exercise, I changed my diet and lost 60 pounds and 10 inches over 14 months. It was easy. As many high-protein dieters will find out, too easy, and very easy to gain back. I’ve gained back almost all the weight I lost, but the cynicism and despair are greater than ever. I felt great, and everything changed in my attitude about weight- or so I thought. I thought I was truly on a new road and that God had decided to give me the strength to change my body and my life.
At the same time I lost weight, I went through one of the worst times of my life and proved my capacity for sin to be far beyond anything I’d ever considered. I was convinced at the time that my weight loss contributed to that sin; that my ego needed the check of being overweight in order to not engage in the worst kinds of rebellions and disobedience. My problem, of course, was not my weight, but my heart. My heart took the good gift of weight loss and used it for evil. Then I saw the gaining of weight, the loss of clothes and suits that I loved wear, the constant reminders of how uncomfortable I feel- I saw them all as just punishments from God.
Such is my thinking. Another manifestation of my sin. I have turned my weight into the curse of a God that I know from the Gospel to be gracious and compassionate. My loathing of myself overlooks my own depravity and makes a capricious God my adversary and punisher.
My obesity is not without its good results. I empathize with large kids. I know what they are going through. But I am desperate that my own children not follow in my path, yet I feel powerless to do anything for them when I have failed to change myself. My wife loves me with a marvelous, Christlike love. She has encouraged me and helped at every point. She’s never nagged or seemed embarrassed. I know that she must have prayed for me a thousand times, but she always treats me as if I am handsome. She is always glad to see me. Only God knows how much my weight has been part of my mistreatment of her.
My friends and family have been kind as well. I know they are concerned. It’s been a gift to be so aware of what is wrong with me, and yet to be treated so well, so normally. This is a real picture of grace. I know they all want me to lose, but have no idea what to do to help me.
I am beginning to accept that this is me. This is who I have become. It is who God has allowed me to become. It doesn’t mean I cannot be happy or love or be useful. It is far from being the kind of terrible burden that many people carry in life. If being fat is my worst problem, I can be grateful.
But I want to be the person God created me to be, and I know God did not create me to glorify him in my body by living as I do. Every time I stand in front of a congregation, my appearance says I have sinned. I have been gluttonous, and lazy. I’ve taken too much, more than I needed, and I’ve done very little about repenting of it. Even as people ask me if I want the second helping- something we do all the time for those we love- I am aware that I have hurt my witness and my ministry by taking advantage of God’s generosity and the love of others. I’ve taken a great gift- my body and its appetite for food- and sinned against God and those good gifts.
I need to find peace. Moderation. I need to stop finding solace in food and in lies about food. I need to believe the actions of repentance and good stewardship are God-glorifying. I need to stop thinking of what I eat more than of those around me who need me, and of what God has for me to do in this world.
I can’t help but wonder whatever became of that thin boy on the beach. Why did I destroy him? I’ll never get him back, and I can accept that. But the nagging questions remain. I grieve for what was lost.
About a year ago, I started having a recurring dream. I have it several nights a week now. It is so real, I sometimes awake and think it is true. It’s not.
In the dream, I am running. Running through the streets like I did when I was 15. Running in the gym early in the morning. I can feel my legs moving and feel myself drawing deep breaths. I feel good. I enjoy it.
Of course, I can’t run like this. I can’t run at all. My legs and back hurt, my breath grows short. The boy who could run is gone. And the man who killed him is what is left.
Left with the love of God, and all these questions. I am who I am. Jesus died for me knowing that I would be this person. Can that be enough for me in the years to come? Can it ever take root deep enough in me to resurrect some relative of that young man in the photo? I do not know. I can only wonder.