Back to the body

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Not many people know this about me, but when I was young I was very athletic and active. I was a hyperactive boy; I ran more than I walked, fidgeted more than I sat still, and talked pretty much non-stop. If I had grown up in this generation I probably would have been heavily medicated. Instead I played sports. A LOT of sports. I began playing Little League baseball and Pee Wee football in second grade and continued both with great passion until I graduated from high school. My senior year I was the varsity quarterback and played shortstop and right field for the baseball team. I ran the 400 and 800 meters on the track squad just for fun.

I was a jock. That’s what we were called. I made good grades. School wasn’t hard for me, but I didn’t care about anything intellectual. I kept my grades up because it made my parents happy and let me be eligible for football and baseball. I didn’t learn much in high school because I didn’t care about ideas or truth. I had a girlfriend and I had sports. Nothing else mattered that much to me. I read voraciously but innocently. I read because I thought books were more fun than movies. I didn’t know that reading could lead to intellectual discoveries, and I wouldn’t have cared if I had known. At eighteen I was a springy, energetic, happy-go-lucky ball of energy.

And then I went to college.

I remember the exact moment when I left the life of the body. It was in my first philosophy class. The professor introduced a new idea that opened my eyes. The power of a new way of seeing the world acted on me like a drug. I was thrilled and leaned forward in my seat. In that moment I vowed to take a philosophy course every semester until I graduated, which I did.

The joy of sports and the body, the thrill of competition, the primitive masculine love of muscular movement slipped beneath the horizon. The sun set on that time of my life and I entered a season of the mind. All the passion I once held for competitive sports was transferred to my studies. I would stay up late at night, talking excitedly about theology or philosophy with my friends.

It never occurred to me that my body might let me down. I never thought about fitness or training or diet. I never had to. All through college, if the opportunity came to play an intramural sport or a pick-up football game, my old skills and stamina were available to me. I was still young and living off the fat of the land.

I graduated and went to seminary. I married a woman also in seminary. We had to work hard to support ourselves and stay in school. There was no time even for informal sports. By the time I finished seminary, I had been sedentary for about 6 years. Shortly after graduation I impulsively joined a pick-up basketball game with some younger guys. After two or three times down the court, I was completely winded. I couldn’t go on. I had to bend over and try to catch my breath. The game stopped while they waited impatiently for me.

I was shocked and ashamed. How could my body betray me like this? I couldn’t bear being the one to slow down the game so I went home. I didn’t realize at the time that a moment as penetrating and life-changing as that day in philosophy class had occurred. I wish I had talked with someone. I was only 26 years old. I could have been back in shape in 3 or 4 months. Instead, shamed, I avoided sports and physical activity. My first job as a chaplain began. A daughter was born during that time. As busy as I was, it was easy to forget my body.

And so I did forget it. I never played another sport. I never exercised. I continued to eat like a young man, meaning I consumed as much as I wanted of whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I became a pastor and fell in love with computers. Then I began to write. My body grew softer and more passive. Years went by. And they went by quickly, as years will.

In January of 2011 I stood in front of the mirror in my bathroom. I was 49 years old. I never was very tall, but over the years I shrunk from 5’9” to 5’8”. I weighed 196 pounds. My once strong arms looked strangely thin, especially hanging next to my bulging belly. Weight charts said that I was not just overweight but obese. My gut was pretty big. Even the loose shirts I wore could no longer hide it. My neck and cheeks were swollen. I didn’t like the way I looked, and I didn’t like the way I felt.

I decided I wanted to do something about it.

to be continued…

Gordon Atkinson

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