On Facing Yourself at the Gym


“The trick is not how much pain you feel—but how much joy you feel. Any idiot can feel pain. Life is full of excuses to feel pain, excuses not to live, excuses, excuses, excuses.” –Erica Jong

When I’m at the gym I often think about what everyone is trying to work themselves out of. I’m fascinated by how what’s on our surface barely conveys what’s underneath, especially because I know how falsely calm and collected I myself probably seem. Because I’ve been going to the gym a lot less these days, there’s a greater storm of self-aggrandizement in my head…a lot of glaring angrily at my thighs but attempting to shake it off with my best fake smile or a really good Drake lyric. I go through a four act play of emotion while running on the treadmill, something a bit like this: positivity about working out and life in general, overwhelming sadness at remembering my Dad is dead, a general fear of failing (at this work out, at my job, at life), followed by excited motivation to keep running anyways in an attempt to mimic what my Dad would do. Endorphins ensure that I feel amazing afterwards, regardless. It’s the feeling of pure accomplishment and, with it, comes a feeling of pure potential. Suddenly life seems to hold a lot more than it did before, and I am newly convinced of my capabilities. To put it simply: I suck less.

There’s a crew of people at my gym who seem to rely on it for similar reasons, and we all exchange knowing glances or waves as if part of a preordained cult: those ‘special’ folk who need an extra boost. The super short guy who beats the shit out of a boxing bag, the voluptuous lady who seems stuck standing on her head, the girl with acne scars who bikes until she’s dripping, and so on. Seeing them always makes me feel a little warmer and less alone on my bumpy road to that elusive self-love. I feel okay about not being born with my arms wrapped tightly around myself. I feel okay about having to force them into that position everyday, with only a 50% success rate. I feel confident in the confidence I lack.

Of course exercise has not always been—and is still not always—a warm and fuzzy procedure for me. No, it can be a way to beat myself up for perceived mistakes or setbacks, a way to fix what I’m convinced I’ve broken. It can be the harshest bully on a feedback loop. As a result, there’s an element of danger to it, which may be part of its twisted appeal—it always has me wondering which side of myself I’ll meet mid-way through. But I tend to dive into it anyways, with all the tangled moods that it brings, because facing them always leaves me feeling lighter than when I arrived.

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