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Good Letters

jan_davidsz-_de_heem_-_still-life_breakfast_with_champaign_glass_and_pipe_-_wga11267When I joined the gym, I was given two free personal training sessions to help “jump-start” my fitness routine. Almost every gym I’ve joined came with such a pass, but I never used them, because I used to coach cross country track, for goodness’ sake. I thought I knew how to exercise. Six babies later though, I felt like I needed some help.

I’d been driving like a gangster in my car, seat back, slumped to one side, one arm over the steering wheel, because my back felt twisted for reasons I couldn’t explain—maybe because I always held my children on my left side, strengthening it, while my right side atrophied. In any case, I redeemed my coupon for a free personal trainer.

The first fifteen minutes of the session was a consultation on my personal life and diet history—trouble spots, life circumstances, and personal hang-ups that have prevented me from reaching fitness goals in the past.

My trainer’s name was Brandon, a short muscular dude with a friendly face, expertly trained not to flinch when recording my height and weight and calculating my body fat percentage. He kept on smiling through forty-five minutes, actually, of weight gain and loss history, nodding his head and jotting down notes. What a champion Brandon was! He made me believe that three decades of dieting was interesting.

Then he led me through a fifteen-minute routine of core strengthening exercises, cheering me on, squatting down for a better look at my form through narrowed eyes.

He gave me tips for activating all the muscle groups, like, “Squeeze your butt cheeks!” and “Pull tight through your belly!”

And I thought, Yes, Brandon, I will do that, because I know you care. Though our relationship had lasted thus far but a fraction of an hour, I just didn’t want to let Brandon down.

I quickly worked up a sweat. I could tell these exercises were what I needed to restore balance to my off-kilter spine. I wanted to pull my shoulders back and use good posture, which I otherwise never want to do. So the moment when Brandon hopped up on his toes, clapped his hands, and pointed back to his office with two thumbs came too soon. I followed reluctantly, and sat back down in the chair I’d left only minutes earlier.

Brandon reached into the lower drawer of a file cabinet, spun on his wheeled chair, and placed a paper in front of me outlining his fees for future training sessions—hundreds of dollars a month.

“So now that you have a taste of what a training session with me is like, maybe you want to look into options for continuing to reach your fitness goals…”

I don’t have fitness goals. I thought I made this clear: I eat to counter stress. I exercise to counter stress. It sort of works—not accounting for the intrinsic imbalance of my whole God-given person. Come on, Brandon!

I was reminded of when my husband and I honeymooned in Ixtapa, Mexico. We stayed in a friend’s flat because we had no money. My husband had just lost his job, and I was a substitute teacher. Every day on the streets of Ixtapa, we’d pass people handing out tickets for Free Breakfast! “You want a free breakfast? Can I interest you in free breakfast?”

“Is it really free?”

“Yes, totally free…they might talk to you a little bit or something, but totally free.”

It never occurred to us to ask who “they” were, nor how long “a little bit” might last. We held out as long as we could, but finally went to the very nice hotel that mysteriously hosted free breakfast for American tourists bright and early one morning.

A kind man met us there, handed us plates, guided us to the hotel buffet that was positively edenic and lush with fresh fruits and pastries. He encouraged us to eat seconds. He laughed at our jokes. And when we were both quite full, he said he had something he wanted to show us.

He led us into a conference room, which was full of other free breakfasters, mostly Americans, I think. No one looked happy. The lights dimmed, a screen came up, and we were treated to a three-hour presentation on owning a timeshare in Mexico.

Did I mention it was Sunday? Did I mention there was only one Mass in the whole city and it was to begin in exactly one hour? Did I mention we had no money, no need of a timeshare, and no means even if we did have need? We knew within minutes we weren’t going to stay for the entire presentation. The great obstacle was convincing the management of the same.

We told them we were in peril of mortal sin if we missed Mass. We told them we were poor. Each manager said they couldn’t let us leave until we’d watched the whole presentation. We persisted. They led us to another manager in another room in the labyrinthine tunnels under the hotel, or something like that. Maybe we were under the ocean.

“Do you think people really just give away free breakfast?” one of the managers shouted at us. “Do you really not know how the world works? There is no free breakfast!” It seemed he might want to break our kneecaps. Am I imagining he was holding a baseball bat?

The problem is, at that time, I didn’t know how the world worked. I thought people were just nice and interested, and enjoyed giving you things and listening to you talk.

That, at least, was the only world I’d known. We were, as I mentioned, on a nearly free honeymoon staying in a friend’s apartment. My parents paid for a large portion of my college education where professors held office hours for anyone wanting to stop by and unburden themselves of soul-troubles or academic concerns. My husband and I had just spent the past year in a rather torpid state of getting to know one another, asking the deep questions, giving gifts “just because” and otherwise expressing our admiration for one another.

Why on earth would anyone be stingy with a few waffles?

Monstrous privilege. Reprehensible naiveté.

People had been pouring into me for the entirety of my life thus far, with so few requests in return. I thought goodness was free. I thought the world was one in which people just gave and gave and gave with no expectation of reciprocation.

What was this strange adult economy where people made requirements on your time and had expectations of your person beyond being interesting?

I know this is how sales have always been done. Sellers treat prospective buyers to smiles, samples, golf, dinners—during which time the seller determines how much of a return the buyer can supply. Salesmen make some of the best listeners in the world because they are looking for the hook, for the specific need that what he’s selling can fill.

I like being taken care of and listened to—that is my very human need. Apparently, staying home with small children, having little access to reciprocal conversation, makes me uniquely susceptible to such pitches. Or maybe, rather, it qualifies me to ignore all the warnings just long enough to get what I need from an eager salesman.

Most people, myself included, are not great at listening. I have tried to fix my companion’s problems whilst they were still talking. I have planned the next thing I wanted to say in that same space of time. I have become bored with people’s health concerns and other problems that I quickly determine I can do nothing about.

Sometimes I can’t determine whether my need for Jesus is a symptom of my own narcissism—that every morning, noon and night, I need an unpaid listener in my life, someone to absorb the most banal concerns of my day, as well as my sin, someone who is not tapping their fingers waiting for their turn to talk or for the payday moment in our conversation.

Do I imagine that he hears me? Do I imagine he is truly concerned? The thing is, if he hears me and loves me, I can go unheard and unloved elsewhere. I need a Jesus in my life, not only to die for me and for my transgressions, but to live with me through the existential loneliness of a world where all capacity for human comfort is limited.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Elizabeth Duffy

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at bettyduffy.blogspot.com. She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

Above image by Jan Davidsz. de Heem (1606–1683/1684) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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