Be forewarned, this is a rant.
I was listening to the radio the other day and they were speaking with a bariatric surgery doctor of some sort (unfortunately affiliated with one of my alma maters) about some recently published statistics that show, to no great surprise, that people are getting fatter and fatter.
This doesn’t even seem to register as overly troubling anymore. This guy’s response, as a supposed expert, was that it’s a real surprise that not everyone in our society is obese. Basically, he argued that our society is set up in such a way, specifically with respect to the 24-7 availability of food and our reliance on computers (i.e. sedentary work and lifestyle), that predisposes people to be obese. His lacklustre advice was essentially (despite the outright error of avoiding ‘fatty’ foods) keep taking your drugs and statins, keep getting your stomachs stapled so you can’t physically cram any more food into them, and just basically accept that ‘society’ is going to make us more and more obese and we better just hunker down and fight the long defeat.
Well, I’m calling bullshit on that. That argument fails for precisely the reason that there’s still a sizeable (ironic word choice) portion of the population who aren’t fat and never will be. Those are the people that have learned and developed a sense of free will and responsibility with respect to taking care of themselves and their bodies. They’ve learned the capacity, as all functional adults should have, to delay gratification. They’ve realized that despite the absolute ubiquity of shitty fast food and temptations everywhere, that no one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to eat that donut. No one is holding you down and forcing you to waste hours playing Candy Crush on your phone or watching reality TV. So if ‘society’ is to blame, why aren’t all those other people fat too? Well, it’s because society isn’t the culprit.
Here’s the harsh truth. If you’re fat, it’s your fault. Unless you’re a kid – then it’s your parents’ fault (and I think there’s a special spot in hell reserved for parents who let their kids get obese…it’s tantamount to abuse). But if you’re an adult human, it’s your fault. I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s the truth. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Hell, you might be the nicest person in the world. But being a fatty is your own doing, and you’re also the only solution to your problem. It’s not your friends, your family, your upbringing, your ‘genes’, or ‘society’ (whatever the hell that means) – it’s you. And it’s time to nut the fuck up!
CT Fletcher says it best in relation to training and weightlifting. At the end of the day, you can complain all you want about your various excuses and limitations, but all that matters is that you get into the gym and do the work. IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ SET! How refreshing would it be if we all carried that attitude over into all aspects of life? Fast food restaurants beckoning you on your way home? IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ DINNER! Go home, take 5 minutes and cook some eggs instead. Sedentary job? IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ JOB! Get out on your lunchbreak and go for a walk and do some pushups. Do squats while you’re on the phone. Whatever works. Too busy in the evenings to exercise? IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ FAMILY! Do chin-ups at the park while watching your kids play...or better yet play with them, play tag, run around. Get off your ass.
The way I see it, this whole victim mentality, this passivity, is the root of the whole problem. I’ve read studies that show a person’s satisfaction and happiness at work are directly related to the degree of control that they feel they have. I would extrapolate that out to life more broadly. If you feel like you are in control of your life to some extent, not in the sense of barking out orders and being controlling, but simply in having the feeling that you are influencing the outcomes of your own life by the choices and decisions you make, I would wager that you feel a sense of contentedness. Conversely, I think most people who consider themselves pawns on some cosmic chessboard, or slaves to other people or agents in their own lives, probably don’t feel very happy or content. And while I’ve never experienced it personally, I’ve heard that one of the main reasons that people overeat is that they’re trying to exert some control in one area of their lives to make up for powerlessness elsewhere. For this perspective, the whole victim mentality becomes a pretty vicious cycle: Eat to feel in control – Get fatter – Blame external circumstances for your weight problem – feel more passive and powerless – Eat some more….
The corollary of this is that in some places, being super fat is now considered a disease! To me, that’s the ultimate in passivity – throwing our hands up in the air and treating it like some kind of plague foisted upon us from afar, rather than accepting responsibility that it’s a condition wholly within our control. Smallpox is a disease. Polio is a disease. Sitting on your ass too much and shovelling garbage into your mouth is not a disease, it’s a choice. Furthermore, the health care costs of this choice are astronomical, with some recent studies estimating it at one fifth of all heath expenses in the U.S.! Now I’m no libertarian – I’m proud that in Canada we have a health care system that attempts to take care of everyone. If you get hurt or get cancer or some other actual disease, I want my tax money paying for treatment. In many ways, a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members. But when people refuse to make simple choices that would avoid those costs from the outset, the whole thing becomes unfair and unsustainable.
The whole thing comes back to free will. No matter your epistemological leanings, we either evolved as sentient hominids out of our more instinctual ‘animal’ pasts, or we were granted the ability by [Insert deity of your choice here] to make up our own minds on how we behave. Even some of the more deterministic Eastern traditions would allow that, within a broader context of fatalism, we have the power to choose how we behave and react to discrete events. Maybe I’m destined to get hit by a bus in two days. Who knows? But in the interim, it’s a precious gift that I get to exercise my own free will in how I conduct myself.
You see this lack of personal accountability everywhere. I keep hearing a commercial on the radio for some sort of credit management firm. The gist of the commercials is that a big mean collection agency has been leaving messages for someone who hasn’t paid their bills. The person is screening calls and then suddenly picks up the phone and says, in the most dismissive and sycophantic tone, “Hi, Mr. So and So, I’ve called BDO.” And hangs up. Problem solved! The whole implication is, how dare this collection agency keep hassling me about my unpaid debts. What nerve! No sense of embarrassment or remorse that I’ve borrowed money that I can’t pay back. No sense of culpability. I’m the victim here! And now I’m passing the buck to someone else who’ll clean up my mess. Calgon, take me away!
Again it all comes back to ability to exercise free will, take responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, and to delay gratification when necessary. It’s really all the same concept. Deciding that hey, I really want a new pair of shoes but you know what, I can’t fucking afford them right now, so I’ll wait until I can. Or thinking, wow I’m really hungry right now, but instead of stopping at Tim Hortons I’ll wait the 10 extra minutes and go home and actually make myself a decent meal using actual food. Or thinking, I’m tired and I don’t feel like going out into the cold for a run, but I know how fantastic I’m gonna feel afterwards so suck it up buttercup! And I’m convinced that free will responds just like a muscle, in the sense that it grows stronger with frequent exercise and it atrophies from disuse. You start taking responsibility for your actions and start making the harder choices, and suddenly the ‘harder’ choices don’t seem as difficult anymore. They become the default. But that can’t happen as long as we continue to deflect and externalize the real causes of our problems, without realizing that each of us holds the key to our own liberation.