I am sure the vast majority of men (indeed of all humanity) and particularly of Catholic men do not recognize the inherent sinfulness of laziness. St. Don Bosco is famous for chiding the young men in his care to remain physically active. “Laziness teaches us all kinds of vices,” the great patron of youth would say. Of course, he would say it in Italian but you get the point. As a further warning, laziness is enshrined as a capital sin under its more severe form called “sloth”. Also, for those in the know and as Fulton Sheen would attest, it’s pronounced /slōth/. With a short “o” we’re talking about the lazy, three-toed tree-hugger from Brazil.
Do Something, Anything, but Avoid Being Idle
Going back to that theme of doing hard things I had made it my quest to lift hard and heavy and often, to run, jump, and planche forward so that I could be better. I knew that laziness had no part in this plan and that it would, in fact, sink any effort to be more manly (in a truly Christian sense). I became cognizant of all the times I had given up time I could have been doing hard things in order to do no things. And I determined to do more of the former and less of the latter. Besides, I thought, being more active would set a better example for my ten year-old son who’s been exhibiting his share of wanting to “do nothing” lately. Hey, I was a ten year-old boy once. I get it. Doing hard things is, well, hard. But the payoff is huge – huge gains physically and eternal life ultimately.
Over the past year I started to notice myself getting physically stronger. This means nothing except that I would now have a benchmark so I would know I was progressing and progress is good. Stagnation is a benchmark of laziness. I noticed as well that my prayer life was improving. As I forced myself out of bed early simply to deny myself sleep I would use the time to pray. I prayed as I poured my coffee. “Dear God, get this caffeine into me NOW! Amen.” I prayed as I struggled not to get back into bed. “Dear God, the floorboards are so cold. WHY?! Amen.” I prayed as I got into the shower which, thanks to Exodus 90 is a cold shower. “Dear God, Take me swiftly into thine eternal light! Amen.” On that last point I often wondered as to the propriety of praying in the shower. I reasoned, of course (of course), that the Good Lord created me naked so He probably wouldn’t be too embarrassed. But boy was that water cold.
I came to embrace the sacrifices because I wasn’t merely giving things up – time, sleep, my body to the pain – but I was gaining. I gained time with Our Lord in prayer. I gained satisfaction in improving myself and setting a better example. I gained a few lbs. of muscle which was cool. Regarding that benchmark I mentioned, I noticed I was lifting heavier weights. When I started I struggled to do biceps curls with 25 lb. dumbbells. Now I start a “rack run” with 55’s. I feel good. But it must always be seen in context. I drop the weights and thank God I can do these things. I drop the weights and I ask God to strengthen me to protect my children. I drop the weights and realize my big foot was just a bit too far in front of my body. 55 lbs. of iron on a big toe really, really hurts.
Shedding one’s laziness is a lifelong endeavor, at least for me. A year into this mindset and I still fight the temptation, when offered a choice of doing something active or doing something sedentary, to force myself toward the active. Example: I come home from a long day of work (at my first of two full-time jobs) and, having picked up the kids from school, the question is posed “Daddy, will you go on a bike ride with us?” or “Daddy, will you do gymnastics with us?” or “Daddy, will you do flips on the trampoline with us?” What the children are actually asking is “Daddy, will you run alongside while we ride our bikes for three blocks until we get tired and make you carry the bikes and us back home?” or “Daddy, will you move furniture in the living room to put down the mat and do handstands for our entertainment?” or “Daddy, will you bounce on the trampoline while we sit in the middle of it and let your weight propel us high in the air?” The answers are yes, yes, and yes. The reward for this sacrifice of giving up watching the evening news is the joy of spending time with two awesome people who seem to think I’m Joe Weider.
A COMPLETE Idiot
So let’s talk about my progress with calisthenics. You didn’t think I mentioned the gymnastics mat and the trampoline for nothing, did you? About three weeks ago I set out trying the basic wall-assisted handstand. Like my experience with pull-ups about a year ago I knew that this would take a bit of time until it “clicked”. In other words, I had to figure it out by just throwing myself into a flip against the wall until I got closer and closer to actually doing it. When it clicked it would be a recognition in my body’s muscle memory and then I wouldn’t be able to “un-do” it. Think of toddlers learning to walk. They struggle but they don’t give up because it’s hard. And then one day they shed the last bits of their fear – in this case fear of not holding onto anything – and they take that step and Shazam! They don’t seem to ever forget how to walk after that. When I figured out pull-ups it was about figuring out which muscles to activate. And then I got better and better. Pushing past my fear of falling on my head I started tumbling headlong on the mat toward the wall in my living room. What stunned even me was just how quickly I “got it”. Within a week I was able to hold a handstand against the wall for 30 seconds. I’ve been working at it for about fifteen minutes daily the past two weeks now and starting to work in something that resembles a handstand push-up. And as for that trampoline? Here’s where you learn why I called myself out as a complete idiot in the title. Remember Aristotle’s definition of virtue and how it stands in the middle? Sometimes in life we gain so much confidence that we exceed the virtue and head right back into the realm of extreme vice (or in my case stupidity). Two nights ago, with my wife still out of town (she was winding down a week-long business trip) I picked the kids up from school and play practice. I was so enjoying the time I had been given with them that I took them for pizza (meatless, it was a Friday after all). We came home and were joined by my college-aged nephew who goes to school nearby. And then came the shouts of “Daddy! Bounce us on the trampoline!” One of these days I’ll get them to bounce me.
Standing on the springy blue “floor” of the trampoline I heard all kinds of things. I heard laughter. That’s beautiful. I heard music. I had brought a bluetooth speaker into the yard so we could have a dance party. I heard one of the kids implore me “Daddy, do a flip!” On a trampoline I’ve done these flips a hundred times.
But this time was different.
I thought about it. Let’s tie it all together. 1) Sacrifice yourself for the kids. 2) Do hard things and be a man. 3) Avoid laziness like the plague. 4) Make it a prayer.
“God, help me amuse me children and gain strength. Amen.”
I bounced. I bounced higher. I bounced even higher. Then I launched and lurched forward. But something was different. Normally there are only three of us on this thing. Today my nephew was on it too. I don’t know if I was distracted or simply not paying attention. I flipped and did not roll forward enough. I landed on my head. I heard the most ghastly snap like when a person cracks his knuckles. And then I lay motionless for 45 seconds while the kids and my nephew laughed thinking the old man was playing a prank. Finally my nephew was able to hear my gasps. “Help… Me… I… Can’t… Breath…” It hurt like nothing I’ve ever experienced. He cleared the kids out and helped me roll off the trampoline. I could stand and walk, though with much pain, so I knew I wasn’t paralyzed. I’ll spare you the details of the rest of the evening except to say that I took a painkiller left over from my last surgery and rested as comfortably as I could. The ER on a Friday night would not have been able to do anything for me.
The next day I finally decided to go to an urgent care center that only handles orthopedic injuries. I was still in tremendous pain. Because of the previous spinal fusions in my lower back I wanted to insure I hadn’t done anything too damaging. A X-ray revealed a pretty nasty fracture of a vertebra in my mid-back. Turns out the lumbar fusions prevented me from rolling out of that flip the right way, hence something had to give. And there’s nothing they can do for me other than painkillers and rest.
There you have it, kids. Daddy sacrificed his body for your entertainment.
I literally broke my back (albeit this time unintentionally). And believe me, God has given me the grace as a father to know just how to use this bit of information to guilt you guys into a virtuous life. “Son, you won’t take out the trash? I guess I’ll do it… Owwwwww! No, don’t worry, my boy, it doesn’t hurt that bad. It’s just a minor – ouch – inconvenience. Not like I didn’t do that back-breaking flip for you…”
But did I hit the goals? I already mentioned 1) having sacrificed my body. 2) A 41 year-old man with titanium hardware in his spine doing a flip on a trampoline counts as “hard”, so, check on that one. 3) I didn’t say no when they asked me to play with them so I’m good on the “avoid laziness” thing. And I even said the following: 4) “Jesus, are ya’ comin’ for me?” as I lay immobile on the trampoline so, prayer, done.
Sacrifice, Lent, the Passion, and True Joy
When I was growing up I was always captivated by the mosaic of the second station of the cross in our parish church in New Jersey. Jesus accepts His cross. In the tiled image Our Lord is depicted with arms outstretched and an expression of joy as the cross is presented to Him. He looks like a young man who has just encountered the woman he’ll marry and he recognizes the joy of love at first sight or like a parent, separated from a child at birth who is finally meeting that child.
This image of joyfully embracing the cross is the finally piece of the puzzle. Yes, I take physical pleasure in lifting weights and in laughing with my kids and in doing hard things and seeing hard gains. I thought of that image and began to ask God, naked in my cold, morning shower, to help me this Lent. “Father, if You will it, I can be made whole. I am a sinful man and Your Son sacrificed Himself for my salvation. I don’t fully understand what I’m asking but please, in Your mercy, let me suffer with Him.”
On this Lenten Friday, missing my wife, rejoicing in my genetic minions who grow more and more like their old man each day, grateful for all He’s allowed me to accomplish, striving for perfection, hoping in His grace… On this day He broke me. But He broke me because He loves me and He gives me a chance to feel that death I must undergo in order to rise to new life. I won’t overdramatize it; but this hurts. I will now have to sacrifice working out because I simply can’t if I want to heal. I’ll have to devote that time to even more prayer and meditation. I might lose those precious gains of which I was so proud and thus exhibit only three abs instead of six at the beach this summer and then I’d have to embrace humility. And it HURTS.
But I’m sure Our Lord’s back was broken under the weight of that cross and he received it with a smile.