Geneen Roth says there is a much better way to spend your time than strict dieting: Live the life you have. Love the body you've got.
My friend Catherine recently told me about a 50-year-old friend of hers who'd been a member of a sewing circle for 10 years and was now dying of brain cancer. "I labored and sweated over my crooked stitches," her friend said. "And always felt ashamed for not making stitches the right size or shape. As if making straight stitches actually meant something about me or my life. Now, the doctors say I have six months to live, and when I think about the time I wasted worrying about those crooked stitches...." She left the sentence unfinished.
Most of the people I see spend most of their lives worrying about their own version of crooked stitches—the size of their thighs, hips, and abdomens. As if those things signify something true or real about their lives. As if when we get to the end of our lives, a number on a scale will mean anything at all.
A few years back, I was in a car accident. We were burbling away, two friends and I, on our way to a party, when suddenly we got sideswiped a few times by someone who ran a red light. After our car crashed into two lampposts, three other cars, and one stop sign, it came to a total standstill. I crawled out of the hole in the side that used to be the door and, although my ankle throbbed, my head felt as if a brick had fallen on it, and I couldn't breathe very well, I was alive. And suddenly, just being alive was enough. It was miraculous. Suddenly nothing was important except the fact that I was still breathing. (My friends, by the way, were just fine.)
I needed a wheelchair for six weeks because of a sprained ankle and a set of bruised ribs, and sometimes, when my husband was busy and couldn't transport me from the dining room to the living room, I'd sit outside and stare at the feast in my backyard. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Just the usual—clouds, trees, sun. Dog barking. Birds trilling. Wind blowing. The everyday jubilee I'd been passing on my way from desk to kitchen to desk as I worried about the stitches of work, family, errands, and responsibilities. I rushed frantically to keep up with the pace of emails, text messages, and book deadlines. But since I had a concussion and couldn't think clearly, and since my usual mode of running around was impossible, I had a good excuse to stop everything and contemplate the little things. Like living and dying. There is nothing like a brush with death to get a girl thinking.
The first time I taught my retreat after the accident, I asked my students to make a list of 10 things they loved most about being alive. They wrote down things like, "reading to my daughter before bed," "swimming with my son," "holding my husband's hand," "being in the forest," and "taking a hot bath." Then I asked them what they would spend their time on if they knew they had only a year to live. All of them elaborated on different versions of doing what they loved and of loving the people they cherished. Not one of them mentioned losing weight, although some of them did say that they would eat only what they really, really liked, which brings me to the subject of dieting and weight loss and being fully alive.
Recently, I read a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in which 300 "moderately obese people" were followed on three different diets, the low-carb diet, the low-fat diet, and the Mediterranean diet (healthy fats, some dairy products, abundant fruits and vegetables). After the first five months of tightly controlled dieting, the dieters lost an average of 10-to-14 pounds. However, by the end of the two-year study, all the participants gained back some of the weight they had lost. Two years of strict dieting and the end result is that you lose 10 pounds and gain back four? Hmm. There's gotta be a better way to spend your time.
There is. It's called: Live the life you have. Love the body you've got. (This is not the same thing as: Give up and binge.)
Part of the reason that diets don't work is that when we are obsessively focused on how much we weigh, we are not focused on doing what we love or on loving what we love. We are thinking about what we will look like when we lose weight. We are spending our days counting calories or fat grams, as if we have forever to be alive, forever to turn to what we truly love.
When the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch's last lecture swept across the Internet, he had pancreatic cancer and six months to live. He spoke as a man whose priorities were clear. He wanted to spend every second he could with his family; he wanted his kids to have a visible record of his love. "I am maintaining my clear-eyed sense of the inevitable," he said. "I'm living like I'm dying. But at the same time, I'm very much living like I'm still living."
Every one of us has a terminal illness. It's called life. Although we want to believe that death only happens to other people, it only takes a second or two to realize that the “D” word is going to happen to us, too. A car accident. A serious illness. An iffy mammogram. Suddenly, it's our life that is at stake. Our life whose stitches are numbered.
Ask yourself how you want to live.
Ask yourself what you would do with your time if you found out that your days were numbered. (Because they are. You just don't know what the number is.)
And, oh, ask yourself what you would eat.
While you might be tempted to say, "I'd eat pizza and cheesecake nonstop, because who cares about clogged arteries when time is limited," ask yourself if that's true. If life is so precious, why would you spend one minute of it making yourself sick?
When I was 19, my college roommate and I were traveling from Pisa to Rome in a rickety airplane. We were convinced that it was going to crash and in the last few minutes of the flight I figured that as long as I was going to die, I might as well die eating chocolate. Despite the turbulence, I managed to polish off the entire five-pound box I'd bought for my mother. If I had died, I would have gone out burping and in a sugar coma. Not exactly a graceful exit.
Rather than focusing on dieting and depriving yourself, which we all know does not work, turn your attention to what you love. Because if you love your life, you want to take care of your body. Even if you knew you only had six months to live, you might eat differently, you might even begin exercising every day, but it wouldn't be because you were ashamed of your body. It wouldn't be because your thighs weren't thin enough or the stitches of your life weren't good enough. It would be because you didn't want to miss a minute of the time you had left.
Why wait? Why not cherish every crooked stitch of your life before another moment passes?
Copyright © 2012 by Geneen Roth.