The Personalist Project

Accessed on May 25, 2018 - 8:58:36

Why “Mens Sana in Corpore Whatever” is Worth Dumping: or, The Four Sayings of Uncle Larry

Devra Torres, May 11, 2018

As I try not to mention too often, I've been working out at a bootcamp called Fit for Christ* for almost a year now. I'm happy about my body going from enemy to ally--but that's what I was aiming at, so it wasn't a total surprise. But four ideas that have helped me go from couch potato to, well, much less of a couch potato, have also helped me in other areas of my life. The connection between body and soul is mysterious but real.

On the chance that these ideas might help you, too, here they are.  I'm grouping them under The Four Sayings of Uncle Larry--that's Larry Lee, sometime circus clown, aerialist and stuntman, now coach to a bunch of well-intentioned neighborhood people in unexotic Hyattsville, Maryland.

1. "Fight for it." 

Sometimes Uncle Larry will tell us to do something truly terrifying, like a set of 8-count burpees or a 2-minute high plank. In the beginning, I'd make a token attempt and fizzle out as soon as things got unpleasant, which was pretty much immediately.

And he'd say: "Fight for it!"

I finally did start fighting for it, and it turned out I could do a burpee.  Eventually I could do a pushup. Later I could do twelve.

And it turns out, when I'm faced with the intellectual or spiritual equivalent of a set of military-style pushups with leg extensions, I can tell myself "Fight for it!"--and it helps. As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, we give up too easily. We imagine temptation is irresistible because we think there are only two choices: give in or suffer forever. We don't know if a temptation might fade away if we kept resisting--because we don't resist long enough to find out. We don't fight for it.

2. "Prove it."

When Uncle Larry's going over ground rules for newcomers, he'll give this speech: "'I can't do a pushup,' you say? OK, but don't just tell me you can't do a pushup. Prove it! Show me you can't do a pushup!" The idea is, instead of cementing yourself in your "limiting belief" that pushups are not a thing you do, you're attempting, maybe, a knees-down pushup, or a half-pushup crowned by a pathetic collapse on the pavement. Each time you do that, you get a little stronger. You might get strong enough to do a real pushup one day. But if you refuse to try, you just stagnate.

This works in the non-physical world, too. Don't just say you can't pray a novena, or write a book, or homeschool a kid--prove it! Try it (unless, of course, there's some genuine reason not to) and see what happens. Go ahead--prove what a loser you are. 

3. "We start together; we finish together."

This one works as follows: There we are, running laps around the parking lot. Some of us are running an eight-minute mile, and some of us are mentally reviewing the symptoms of a heart attack, because we think we might be having one as we pant our way through our nineteen-minute mile. Some of us--this was me last year--are walking, not running, for the first month or so, because we haven't run in thirty years except that one time with our friend Joe, who would smoke AS HE RAN, so it was a little embarrassing to be outrun by Joe.

But when the boot campers who finish sooner are done, they go back to accompany the ones who are still lumbering along. They don't sneer, either: they're sympathetic and encouraging, because they remember how they used to be the ones lumbering along. The fast ones aren't slowed down, and the slow ones get faster (or at least don't feel abandoned). 

This is also transferable to spiritual things. If we study together and worship together and lean on each other through family crises, nobody feels abandoned, and everybody gets a chance to be useful. "It is not good for man to be alone" is still true, even for introverts, even for stubborn people. When Moses lifted up his hands, the Israelites had the best of the battle. That was some dramatic, supernatural aid--but even so, his arms got tired, and his people would have been defeated despite the miracle if his friends hadn't been there holding up his arms.

Let your friends hold up your arms.

4. "I've got a workaround for you."

I don't mean to imply that the power of positive thinking, or the support of fellow sufferers, is a guarantee of success in everything life might throw at you. Sometimes no amount of "fighting for it" or "proving it" or "accompaniment" will make you able to do a certain exercise.  Do you get kicked out of the group? No, Uncle Larry devises a workaround. Maybe you do your pushups on your knees, or you sort of bounce your legs when other people are doing the pushup part of the burpee. You do what you can. You don't stop pushing yourself: you do something, but you don't despair, because, as another Saying of Uncle Larry has it, it's a work in progress.

And this, of course, is a helpful approach for the rest of life, too. You're not a perfectionist if you have high standards; you're a perfectionist if you refuse to do something at all unless you can do it just exactly right. But very few things in life absolutely have to be done one particular way. Resourcefulness, imagination, and a willingness to improvise can take you a lot farther than a purist mindset will. I'm not talking about going mushy on Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. I'm talking about making peace with "close enough" in everyday life while also trying to do better.

So wish me well on my one-year anniversary! And join me sometime in our parking lot.


*Mens sana in corpore sano: ancient Roman saying meaning "healthy mind in a healthy body." Mens sana in corpore whatever: loosely translated--"The mind is what counts, so eat all the bagels you can."

**That's "fit" as in "physically fit," not "fit" as in "deserving of."