I’ve started exercising.
I don’t mean my usual walking and hiking. I mean actual exercising, with resistance and flexibility and cardio, because staring down the barrel of forty years old is a good reminder that, while the body is doomed to fail, we probably ought not help it along.
It took me a while—and two aborted attempts at becoming a runner, and one upsetting fling with a spin cycle—to get to this point. But now I have a tiny routine going, and what I’m here to report is that—well—
Exercise makes change. But a different sort of change than I expected.
I don’t know what I hoped or assumed would happen. I’m only a few months into my routine. But somewhere in my mind I had the vague notion that even if I didn’t shed a few pounds I’d be able to, you know, do something cool: lift heavier things, or lift slightly-less-heavy things but for longer, or magically develop a fair bit of additional stamina.
And those things are coming into view. But what has been more immediate is this: exercise has made me more capable, in a general way that has surprised me.
That sounds stupid, on the face. But let me put it this way: I have never in my life engaged what people refer to as my “core muscles.” I have never, since early teenage years when gym class forced me to, attempted a situp. I have abs of marshmallow and cotton candy.
But my new routine involves something called core exercises. I have dutifully gone along with them, twisting and holding poses, and have otherwise not thought much of it—until I noticed small, strange results:
I didn’t tweak my back as much in bed as I used to previously.
I could hold yoga poses much more steadily than I used to, and for far longer.
My posture has improved.
A lot of my general stiffness after I sit for long periods has faded.
I can move from stillness to motion with much more grace.
And they are small changes. But they are changes that I can see are necessary before everything else. Strengthening my core makes it possible for me to do the other exercises necessary to get to where I want to be. Small, incremental changes lay the groundwork for what comes later.
It’s not really the quick fix most people hope for, but it’s far more enduring.
And I think of how I and others often treat my spiritual life the same way. I set up a regimen or a series of practices and I throw myself into them. I wait for the big changes to come: a sudden revelation in my view of God, sudden peace and patience, a sudden outpouring of love for that one person I cannot abide. But the changes are smaller, more incremental, preparing me for the person who will experience that peace, that patience, those sudden outpourings of love.
A quick story:
There is a particular chore I loathe doing. But it is mine. Back when my husband and I divided up chores, we both acknowledged we would each have to do something we didn’t like, and this one was mine. And I hate it. I put it off at every opportunity, I sigh and silently complain and think, “I have to give up a half hour of writing/playing games/reading/enjoying a bath for this? After the hard day I’ve had? After the people I’ve dealt with? Bleh.”
But I think about how hard my husband works, and how this is something we agreed on together, and how he has his own chores that he also hates, and how it pleases us both when the chore is done. And without realizing it, I have started practicing the chore without dread—trying deliberately to do so as a small act of sacrifice. If God asks us to give up everything to serve others, I reasoned, then I should at the very least be able to do the chore that I hate without complaining about it.
And the tiny practice has changed me. Mostly, in small and incremental ways, it is nibbling away at the assumption that I have the primary right to my time and my resources, that I should serve my own needs before I serve others’. And no, it’s not a huge sacrifice. And no, it hasn’t transformed me into someone—yet—who could serenely and joyfully die to self. But it is preparing to become a person who might one day do that. The practice of denying myself in this small area is preparing me, just a little, to become a person who is more Christlike.
So don’t neglect these small, enabling changes in your life. They are the groundwork on which the foundation of everything else is laid. God’s building is careful and precise, and he will not put an extravagant mansion on a shaky foundation. He creates from the ground up.
Keep your eyes open for the subtle shifts of his handiwork.