By Mark E. Smith
If you’re going to be somebody, you can’t be just anybody. To be an individual is the art of introspection. You must only be yourself, from within, outward – entirely.
I first began working out with weights in middle school. My school didn’t have an adaptive physical education class, so I was sent across the street to the high school, to its adaptive P.E. class every day for an hour. However, its adaptive P.E. class wasn’t for those with disabilities, but injured jocks. So, there I was, a scrawny, spastic kid with cerebral palsy who used a power wheelchair, in a class with a bunch of football players and wrestlers. And, as kind as everyone was, I never felt so out of place.
Mr. Thompson, a 50-something wrestling coach who stood no more than 5’5”, with bulging biceps and a barrel chest, was our teacher. And, he made no exceptions for me in his class based on my disability – that is, regardless of my cerebral palsy, I was to work as hard as everyone else. To me, that meant I was sure to fail. After all, how could I ever compete in the weight room with able-bodied jocks who were three times my size and years older? But, as Mr. Thompson explained to me, he thought differently. My effort wasn’t based on who everyone else was or what they were capable of doing; rather, my effort was to be based solely on who I was and what I was doing. See, whether I bicep-curled three pounds or thirty pounds didn’t matter to Mr. Thompson. He just wanted me pushing my limits as an individual – entirely.
But, it all mattered to me. I wanted to compete with the big boys in the weight room, to live to their standards. So, unbeknownst to Mr. Thompson, I got a dumbbell set and started working out in my bedroom every evening. And, I was quickly humbled – humiliated, really – realizing that when it came to weights, I was a world away from everyone else. I had eight-pound dumbbells that took all of my strength and coordination to manipulate, and as the days, weeks, and school year passed, I never came anywhere near the weight-lifting prowess of the high school guys – I would clearly never be in the same league as the jocks, forever a weakling compared to them.
However, as that school year ended, I didn’t give up on lifting weights. Instead, I dedicated more time to it during the summer, realizing what Mr. Thompson knew all along: I wasn’t competing against anyone; rather, I was competing against myself to live up to my individual potential, whatever that may be.
I kept working out well into my twenties, truly living up to my own physical potentials, when I then let graduate school, career, and having a family all get in the way of my obligation to pursue my physical best, ceasing working out. What I now know is that the only way we fail at working out is to quit working out – and I failed miserably, tossing away over a decade of discipline because I got distracted by the externalities of life, neglecting my core self.
Nevertheless, by my late thirties, realizing a hole in my life – realizing that if quitting working out meant failure years prior, then starting again meant success – I got back into working out, making not a New Year’s resolution, but a life resolution. I vowed that I wasn’t going to get in shape for any reason except to live up to the potential that Mr. Thompson first taught me decades earlier, that I was ready to not just start anew, but to start anew within myself, where accomplishment wasn’t based on vanity – how strong I was, or how big I was – but simply effort.
Upon restarting working out, I initially felt like I was in middle school again, where the weights that I could handle were low and the progress slow, but I knew that it wasn’t an overnight process, that I had to be prepared for years of grueling work. I committed myself to the lifestyle by putting in an accessible home gym that originally far exceeded my fitness level, knowing that it wouldn’t go to waste, that I was going to work my way up the weights, not over weeks or months, but over years, where I would eventually reach the upper numbers on my gym equipment.
I’ve stayed true to my life resolution – read that, I’ve stayed true to my core self – where hitting the gym didn’t become a passing resolution, but a lasting lifestyle. I both work my schedule around training, as well as work my training around my schedule, and I’ve maintained working out as a life priority for several years now – and it’s become my center, a sort of meditative time, even. What I’ve learned is, if you’re truly dedicated to working out as a life quest – not for vanity or a New Year’s resolution, but for personal growth and introspection – you realize how humbling and grounding it is, where it’s about acknowledging your weaknesses not demonstrating your strengths. Weights don’t lie, and they don’t let you lie to them – and if you try to cheat them, they always win, showing you as a fool. However, if you stick with working out – honestly, introspectively, for years, driven not by living to anyone’s standards, but to simply live up to your own potential – weights truly show you who you are, instilling an unyielding work ethic, teaching goal-achieving patience, building life-inspiring perseverance, and shaping character-based humility. Most importantly, lifting weights teaches you that strength literally comes from knowing weakness and enduring pain – and you can’t maximize the first without embracing the latter. If we wish to grow, we must be prepared to reach deep, where mental, emotional, and physical pain aren’t avoided, but welcomed – in the gym and, more importantly, in life.
I don’t know where any of the jocks from that high school class are today, now in their mid-forties, or whether they have beer bellies or washboard abs. However, as Mr. Thompson taught me, I don’t care where they are today or what shape they’re in. What matters to me is that I know where I’m at: In my gym, door shut, alone, pumping out reps, acknowledging my weaknesses and enduring the pain needed to live up to my sole potentials – entirely.
See, what the weights continue teaching me is not to waste our time trying to be like everybody else, but to truly live up to our own fullest potentials, whatever they may be. And, it’s only in such introspective pursuits that we shift from being anybody to truly being somebody, all within ourselves.