In the 4th century, Christianity identified ‘seven deadly sins’: failings of character that were to be particularly avoided and condemned by all righteous people.
Pride (being boastful or snobby)
Gluttony (eating too much)
Wrath (being very angry)
Sloth (being lazy)
Maybe it was because Dante terrified everyone at the time, but Christianity took these to be severe faults needing punishment and scolding. We may not use this precise terminology today (save David Fincher or Dan Brown), but in the spirit of how we interpret character flaws, we tend to retain a critical set of attitudes.
Inside the walls of the gymnasium, onlookers have confided how shocked they were to see so many of us overweight, ‘click-ish’, lazy or ‘loose’. “You would have thought they’d be in a little better shape” they would say. No more likely for a hospital to have a building full of healthy patients than for a gym to host only finished products. In the most accurate way possible, a gym, is a rehab center for our bodies, but more importantly, for our soul.
From this re-framing, we may stand on a surprising truth: what we interpret as unadmirable, may actually be the first response to difficulty and distress. We aren’t so despicable so much as in some pain in a few areas.
Let’s consider each of the sins individually:
Pride: it can appear that we post excessively on social media, seem cocky or even snobbish about our physical activities because we are "so sure" of ourselves. This couldn’t be more wrong. We boast because we feel a sense of invisibility. Without a proper announcement of our feats or accolades, it’s easy to think that without it, others will believe we are less than we should be; we need to assert our greatness! Those that we identify as proud don’t need to be told they are terrible; they already think it. They need to be guided toward a different appreciation and more genuine pride in their own merits - so they can be spared the manic impulse to constantly call attention to themselves...to the attention of others.
Envy: Envy is a fundamentally natural identification of what we lack but it’s inappropriately executed. It's a notion that we are incomplete and we need improvement. These displays of jealousy are rampant with how we talk and act toward those that appear to look, play, and feel better than us. In the world of fitness, it grows from the insight that other athletes or instructors have something to teach us but mixed together with inaccuracy and panic about what that might actually be. Envy should be our teacher. We should make a note when it hits us, wade thru the confusing signals and use them to give us direction and purpose. We shouldn’t be scolded for our outbursts of envy, but be helped to understand what is really missing from our lives.
Gluttony: We eat too much not because we lack willpower or are greedy, but because we are emotionally starving. We want love way more than we want chicken wings or donuts, we are just at a loss of how to find it at those moments (guilty!). The solution, therefore, isn’t to be told to eat less (which at some point every nutritional regime will encourage); it is to be helped to discover new sources of kindness, security and emotional satisfaction. Our appetite isn't necessarily bad and doesn’t need to be eradicated, it simply hasn’t found the right source. Excess weight is symbolic of some emotional undernourishment.
Lust: We hear of rampant affairs and physical relationships in the gym not because it’s filled with a bunch of degenerates, but because we are lonely. Sexual relation is the epitome of connections and acceptance. The so-called ‘despicable’ thing we see going on is proof that others are looking for open-ended affection, which is in such short supply in ordinary life. Ideally, we’d be able to communicate what we are really looking for here; which is acceptance of our messy, complex and all-too-imperfect selves.
Wrath: the angry things we say and do when we are in the gym are almost never truly meant. Someday, science will prove with causality the correlation between elevated heart rate, exercise, and meanness, but while we wait, we should understand that wrath is a result of panic and anxiety. We yell and are rude because in that moment we are scared about something . Therefore, instead of being repeatedly told it’s appalling to be angry (which we are already intimately aware of), what we need is someone who has a good understanding of those secret fears. We need others to appreciate how fragile our temperaments are, not shame us for our explosions.
Sloth: We say we want those results, will attend class, will make a change but time and again fail to do so. We are labeled lazy, but really it’s fear. We can’t afford to try something and risk humiliation. If we risk a task too hard and don’t succeed then we will be mocked by...everyone. These are hugely understandable anxieties. Behind our inaction is anticipated disaster; a mind that can sense catastrophe. We will begin when the fear of doing nothing at all trumps the fear of doing something poorly.
Greed: We think one workout is ok but two workouts is what we need; what we deserve! The powerful urge to take more than we need is really a reaction to a feeling of deprivation. We have neglected ourselves or been neglected that now we require even more. This fear is so embedded in us that we keep it at bay by taking as much as we can as quickly as possible. It’s hard for us to be satisfied with anything. To others, it may look like we’ve done enough, but inside we just feel desperate.
The gym is not a place for perfect people, it’s a safe-haven for the imperfect. Our struggles are not signs of being ‘bad’, but the shape of our unmet needs when we haven’t found a better way to express them. We don’t, as a response, need to be berated or ridiculed, we need an open affection that welcomes the fat, the angry, the jealous, the narcissist, the hussy, the needy, and the lazy; just as we are. We need understanding without criticism and we need insight to locate these vulnerabilities and encourage them for reform.