Last year, in the middle of a global pandemic and the lowest point in my life, I decided to join the gym. I felt sluggish sitting all day at my home programming. I had vastly underestimated just how vital those 10-minute walk breaks on the campus were for me. As this thought made a purchase on me, I wondered why this time would be any different. After all, I had tried to hit the gym multiple times before. Once, when a bully punctured my toe in the ninth grade, and I wanted to muscle him out the next day, and later when I graduated, and then last year when my friends at college insisted I work out with them. My motivation never lasted longer than the muscle inflammation of the first workout. I never put any thought into it, but if I did, I would say, “I’m too busy for this anyway,” or “My shape’s not too bad. “
The next day I wake up at 7 AM, make myself a coffee, and off I go. Only, as I’m about to head out to the gym, I feel butterflies in my stomach that loosely translate to me wanting to use the restroom. As I cross the street, I feel the strains in my gut growing. So, I go back up and sit on the commode for five minutes, killing time. It happens three times until I ask my mother to lock me out of the house. When no one answers my subsequent doorbells, I know that mom has sincerely obliged.
The gym is a small hall with a shoddy build. As I enter, I’m met with wall graffiti designed to whip athletes into a testosterone-fueled rage and hear the heaving groans of sweaty men pushing themselves to the edge, punctuated by the thud of weights hitting the ground and the sharp clang of metal. “Oh man,” I say to myself, “this place is not for me.” “How will I survive this place? I’m nowhere close to these folks.” Guiltily, I realize this will be my fourth failed attempt at working out. I convince myself that it’s probably for the best since I don’t have the time anyway. Amid all the rationalization, a short hulking man walks up to me and introduces himself as the gym instructor. “Welcome, what’s your name?” the instructor promptly asks. I guess I’m not going back home just yet.
He gives me a tour of the gym, and at the end of it, I ask, “So, what am I going to be doing today?” “Not so fast, buddy,” he says, “we’ll get to the workout soon. Tell me first, what’s your goal?” My goal was to get in shape. “What kind of a shape?” he asks. It was a stupid question. I want to lose weight! What else, you dummy? I don’t say all that out loud. “I want to cull all this extra fat and get ripped.” “Why?” It takes me longer than I’d have thought to answer this one. At that moment, I realize I didn’t know why. I want to look into the mirror and not think about how poorly drawn I am. “I just want to,” I reply after an unusually long pause. He doesn’t say anything. I bite the bullet and tell him, “it’s because I’d much rather look like people on the IG than not.” Channeling Socrates in that conversation, he asks, “Why not?” To that, I say, “I’m not happy with my body.” My body is affecting my confidence and my relationships. At that moment, I realize I was not happy at all, my body was just an excuse, and I think he realizes it too.
I ask if I can pay the fee on my fifth day. He asks, “Why?” “It’s because I’ve never really continued going to the gym for more than four days.” He looks at me unsurprised and says, “Sure.” He continues, “You aren’t the only one though,” he says, “around the time of new years, flocks of new faces show up in here, pay the annual subscription, and then only a handful stick around.” I didn’t want to ask why but I did. “It’s because the New year’s resolution is not a good enough reason. It can make you pay for sure, but it can’t make you endure the birthing pains of a new habit.”
“You come here every day except Sunday. Sweat your butt off, and in a few years, you will start looking like the guy you picture. If you’re like most people, you’re not even going to stick around for that long, but if you’re not and show up tomorrow and the day after, know that you would feel the same insecurities about the body two years later. The goal post is forever moving. Your body can surely make you sexy but not happy.” I wanted to ask, “What would make me happy,” but I didn’t. Although knowing him now, I know his answer would have been, “That’s not my job, kid.”
I worked out. I woke up with muscle soreness the next day and worked out again. Then, Day Three came, and by Day Four, the soreness went away, and on Day Five, I’d officially broken my record of the longest time spent in the gym. One hundred ninety days, and not a single holiday — I’d taken to the sweaty butt quite literally. Then the COVID second wave hit, and the lockdown happened. I was back home, and this was a test of how sincere I was about working out daily. I felt compelled to work out, but there was no equipment at home. As someone experienced in making excuses, this could have been a good one. However, something had changed in me. I didn’t want to excuse myself. Quite the opposite, I tried to work out. So, I began with push-ups. It started at 30 per day and finished at 220 per day. I did pull-ups and began bodyweight training in hopes of one day being able to do calisthenics. I ordered resistance bands and trained with them for a month. I did the 10K push-ups challenge.
The gyms have now reopened, and I’ve started to go again. I reflect on that conversation I had with the gym instructor a year ago. The question he had left in me unanswered, “What would make me happy?” is now answered. All the times I had tried to work out failed because I had flimsy reasons. The desire to look like someone else was strong enough to cajole me into paying for a gym subscription but not strong enough to overcome self-rationalization and the reluctance to put in the hard work. I didn’t care enough about other people on the good days and only compared myself to others on the bad ones. This time was different. I wanted to work out because I wanted to be happy. That meant not caring about the water-weight fluctuations on the weighing scale or plateauing muscle gains. It meant absorbing endorphins my body released while I was lifting the dumbbells or pulling down on the rope. The process made me happy, not the outcome. I’m nowhere close to the body I’d imagined but much further ahead on my journey of happiness.
If there’s one idea popular culture sells — it’s that if you’re good-looking and live a rich life, socially and otherwise, you’re as close to being happy as can get. Like any other regular young teen seeking happiness, I’ve googled all of “How to get thin?”, “How to get rich?”, “How to get laid?” and “How to get famous?” I’ve gotten hundreds of thousands of results — a cocktail of personal anecdotes and carefully curated self-help actions. However, I now realize that knowing the How has rarely ever been enough to jolt me to the goal post. When we ask why we should do something, we risk finding out that we shouldn’t. It’s scary, and it’s why people prefer to borrow their Whys from friends, family, and society. All this time, “How” has been a cursory google search away. What’s different is that I did not borrow my Why when I began working out. It was not an end in itself, rather my means to be happier.
To ask Why is to get an inch closer to my unique happy self. Imagine finding out that one doesn’t need to get a college degree, get married, or buy a house to be content after all. If what makes one happy are the stars of the night sky, there’s only so much one can borrow from all the daylight of the bright sunny day. Which is to say, if we can question traditions and impositions in a society that runs on hand-me-down secondhand Why's, we won’t be so readily quitting on things we are supposed to be doing. A fulfilling life, by its very nature, doesn’t make us want to quit.