Last week, I hiked the Incline — a lung-busting, leg-burning mountain staircase — and felt, well, pretty much like barfing.
Not that unusual, granted; the Incline is tough under the best of conditions, and the morning was already too warm. It’s, true, too, that my Philosophy of Hard Effort is to push until I butt briefly against the toss-your-cookies threshold, dial back a notch and then hold to the finish.
But on this day, that sweet spot felt decidedly sour. And I had done it to myself, with this:
The night before, I had gone face-down in a big bowl of Safeway Select mint moose tracks ice cream, before which I had devoured an individual Marie Callender’s chocolate satin pie. Not the best night-before workout fuel, but I have a long-time sugar habit, and it tasted so good.
Wait: That’s not true. It tasted good for the first few bites; after that, it was just the powerful, coarse sensation of “sweet” that for much of my life I have associated with comfort.
Refined sugar wrecks havoc on my body — it makes me tired and mucks with my mood — and I’ve known that for a long time. I’ve become more sensitive to its effects with age; as the resilience of youth fades, every sin we commit against ourselves is more readily apparent.
Yet sugar is a powerful habit, the familiar fix to which I turn when a small restlessness or minor melancholy stirs within me. Food — typically sweet or salty — serves that purpose for many of us. For others, it’s alcohol. Or diddling away hours online or watching television.
It’s not that these things are inherently bad; it’s our relationship to them that bears scrutiny. Sugar has always been trouble for me, but I have a longstanding, amiable relationship with beer. For instance, I know that this is OK for me:
But not this; for me, this is the point of diminishing returns:
The point of refraining is different for each of us, and it isn’t determined by some externally imposed “should”: the tyranny of the bathroom scale or some puritanical notion of being good or bad. It’s determined by our willingness to understand what is happening — what it is we are doing — when we overindulge in comfort foods, have one drink too many or check out in some other way.
I like Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chodron’s nuanced response to a brownie-loving student who wonders how much is too much:
It’s that last observation that brings me up short. Yes, we suffer the after-effects of self-negating choices: the hangover, the unhealthy weight gain, the nauseating workout. But at the point of indulging, we suffer, too, a subtle malaise of the moment: Numbing out; not being here. For ourselves. For our lives.
I’m 56 — hardly old by Western standards — but old enough to have lost many younger friends. I don’t know if I’ll die tomorrow, or in 10,000 tomorrows, but I do know that I want to be fully engaged and present for whatever life I have left.
To that end, Pema Chodron suggests we consider this:
It’s a good question to ponder, when the bowl of ice cream beckons, or the drink too many, or the black hole of the Internet.
How much do we want to truly live the lives we have left, rather than checking out?
What is the most important thing?