#14 Gains and Losses
Losing weight can make you look at yourself differently.
“What will you gain when you lose?” is the tagline of a current Special K campaign. The little quip caught my attention because I have finally started losing my “college weight,” about 12 lbs so far. I could think of a few “gains” of my own: a free wardrobe (my old stuff), admiration from friends and family, better self-control around food… good stuff, to be sure, and the kind of things I expected to come along with weight loss. But the Special K website takes things further, with answers including confidence, passion, joy, peace, delight, and assurance. At this point, I’m tempted to discuss the true source of peace and joy, but I don’t think any of us really needs to be told that dieting is not a suitable replacement for God. Instead, I want to bring up one of the unexpected things I gained from losing weight, something I think we are all at risk for when we succeed by our own willpower at something that’s considered really difficult… pride.
What is sinful pride? Perseverance pays off, and we’re appropriately excited and satisfied when we reap the just reward of our efforts. That’s not a sin. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes pride as “excessive love of one’s own excellence.” About a week ago, I was feeling pretty in love with my excellence. I was exceeding my weight loss goals, and since I’d pretty much cut out junk food before Lent started, I’d decided to give up meat and dairy. That was hard, but I was doing a decent job of it, and I was proud of that. I was proud of how successful I was at keeping my Lenten sacrifice. See the problem there? Well, I didn’t. I had decided to do all the dishes around the apartment for Lent as well, as a remedy for my laziness and an act of goodwill toward one roommate in particular, who asks for favors a lot and never shows gratitude. I figured that either she’d notice and be grateful, improving our relationship, or she wouldn’t notice and it would be an exercise in doing good quietly, as Jesus instructs us. I was so sure of my own ability to do all these things by my own new-found willpower that I wasn’t asking God’s help. I wasn’t offering sacrifices to God so much as offering them to my own ego. One day last week, God mercifully decided that I’d had enough pride and allowed me to make a complete jerk of myself. I got into a spat with the roommate and threw everything I’d been doing in her face, told her how her constant complaining about every little thing (mild exaggeration) was impossible to put up with and how I’m sick of her being so mean to me and roommate #2. I was accusatory, self-righteous, and a little hyperbolic; the barrage on her made her genuinely upset. I apologized, but that didn’t fix it. In the aftermath, I saw so clearly where I had gone wrong that it amazes me I didn’t see it coming. Like a leech that releases anesthetic when it bites so that it gets a longer meal, the first thing sin does is numb you to itself. Pride makes you forget what humility really looks like. I was picturing myself, scrubbing the dishes of an ungrateful roommate, as the perfect little Christian postergirl. I forgot that God, who created us to begin with, is the only one who can reshape our damaged hearts and souls. I can’t just lose my sin by setting manageable goals and maintaining a positive attitude. I need to be healed of it.
I went to the Sacrament of Reconciliation that night, and it was such a relief to tell the priest how I hated my fast (I had been cheating a little, which is probably why I was in such a bad mood toward the roommate) and how helpless I was to fix our difficult relationship simply by my own will. He told me I could use non-dairy cream in my coffee, which made me feel a lot better about the fast (coffee is an obsession for me) and helped me to realize that my willpower only goes so far and I should turn things over to God. My confession also reminded me of what the other priest said at the start of Lent, calling the confessional the “goat box” and encouraging us to de-goat-ify this Lent. Sure enough, losing weight and my Lenten penances brought my stubborn pride to light, allowing me to seek forgiveness and healing.
I took a little break from my diet after that, but I’m back on it now. I see my success as more of a sign that I was eating way too much before than as evidence of some kind of super-powered will. Right now, I decided to commit myself to writing in my prayer journal whenever I’m tempted to cheat on or whine about giving up meat and dairy. That way, I’ll be sure to keep it a spiritual practice rather than relying on my own will. And with my roommate, who went home for spring break just after our fight, returning Sunday, I’ll have a strong reminder of my failings to help my humility. Forget losing weight; I want to lose some pounds from my bloated ego, making more room in my heart to adore God. This Lent, we’re all trying to rid ourselves of various sins. What will you gain when you lose? Maybe peace and joy are appropriate answers, after all.