The Beginning and the End
The photograph is from a bit before the beginning, but from a time when I desperately wanted to be more fit. I was starting to have serious health problems. I’m not sure of my weight at this point, but likely in excess of 400 pounds.
When I was seven years old I became firmly convinced I was a composer. I had been taking piano lessons for a while. I wanted to compose a piece of music. My piano teacher gave me a music staff notebook. I remember talking about it with my mom, in what I am sure was, for her, an entertaining conversation.
“How do I figure out what to write?” I complained. My mother was the head musician in the family, and to my seven-year old self, she was a musical genius who knew everything.
“Why don’t you start by writing a song based on a song that you like?” Mom answered.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I believed that I was capable of writing the perfect symphony. I wasn’t happy starting. I wanted to finish. I wanted my name on a completed orchestration, not to go through a years- or life-long process of learning how to be a composer and the work-process of actually writing music. I wasn’t interested in the moment-to-moment, long-term commitment. I sure wasn’t interested in failure.
Thinking about this occurrence from nearly five decades ago is revealing of a lifelong effort to avoid the process in between being a beginner and reaching my goals. I applied this same principle to decades of attempted weight loss. I wanted to start dieting, then be done, fit and trim, within a day or so. Otherwise, it was just too hard. I thought that there must be some magic way—or, at least, I fantasized about one—that would allow me to step from wherever I was to the finished product. I’ve been on this diet for six hours; why aren’t I thin?
I also never wanted to let anyone see me being new at something. I don’t want people to see my mistakes, my misses, or my incompletes. I wanted to be an expert. This has inhibited me in music practice, because I don’t want anyone around when I am practicing. It has definitely been a problem for working out or doing anything athletic, because (among other reasons) I don’t want anyone to see that I am new at these things, whether it is biking, baseball, or golf. This is a little different from wanting to be finished; not wanting people to see less-than-finished work was embarrassment over not knowing what I was doing, or not having done the work to become good at it.
There is nothing at which I, or you, or anybody else can be accomplished or be an expert, without doing the part that comes after beginning. Without engaging in the process. And brutally, this applies most strongly to becoming a healthful, wellness-focused person. Beginning can be hard. But the test is not in starting. The test isn’t even at the end. The test comes during the in-between parts, the day-to-day, moment-to-moment choices. The mundane, unexciting parts. The choices we need to make are not usually the ones that we want to make. The things that we must do are not the things that we want to do… at least at first.
For me, getting to my health goals (to live healthfully, as long as possible, with the greatest quality of life) is requiring that I let go of this need to be at the end of the process. Instead, I have to live in the process. I have to become comfortable with being at my current stage of development, wherever that might be. I have to be okay with letting others see that I am starting, and that I am learning. I must accept my mistakes. And, most importantly, I must find a healthful life in the process.
Process, process, process. This is really what these changes are all about. They are about wallowing in the process, and finding contentment in not being anywhere close to finished. The changes are about what I am going through right now, and worrying about this moment, not about what might happen in a month or in a year. They are about making the decision to turn away from pie. They are about picking up an apple, or a kale salad. They are about sitting quietly while others around me fall prey to the standard American diet. They are about recognizing that the messages that we have been hammered with all of our lives, from the pay-to-lose diet industry and the food lobbies, are untruthful. They are about knowing for certain that the decision I make at every moment, that every single bite I take, what I sow, makes a difference in the outcomes that I reap.
And it is hard. I know that. Does it get easier? Sure it does. It really does. But not quickly. It’s a long, slow, drawn out process. But through it I have become convinced that the process is really what life is. The process is the goal. Not to become healthy but to live healthfully. It isn’t did I go to the gym this morning, or did I have one cheeseburger in the last month. It is about all of the moments of living an active, athlete-like lifestyle, and all of the moments of living as a healthy, plant-based eater. This is why habits are so critical, and why every bite matters.
I urge you: if you want to be successful in reaching your health and wellness goals, then stop focusing on the final product and focus instead on the process, on your moment-to-moment life. This is where you are most vulnerable. This is where you are most alone. When you hear people say that you have to do the work, this is what they are talking about. This is where you will find your solution.
One more thing that I have learned (or am learning)… being accomplished, or being an expert, is not something that comes from having completed the process. It comes from having lived in the process, and from continuing to live in it. Ask yourself if you believe that the process has an ending point for you (while you are still breathing). I am going to tell you that it does not. The idea that we can sit comfortably at some point, content in having finished all that we set out to do, is a myth. It makes great poetry. It is fine for people who are not trying to become greater. I’m pretty sure, though, that it is not for me.