Why I Neglect My Body

Most weeks, when Shabbat finally comes in, I’m barely able to walk. My feet ache from supporting me the whole day, the soles tingle and the bone just hurts. And then, sometime after dinner has ended, and I’ve read my book and dozed on the couch for a bit, I lay down in bed, and my back starts to give me trouble. At some point, a few hours after I’ve found a semi-comfortable position and fallen asleep, I’m shaken awake by my calf muscles cramping up. So, I get up and walk it off around the house on my callused, tingly feet.

I arrive at work exhausted and late most mornings just because I went to sleep late. Not that I was doing much, just the usual time wasting.

I walk in the door ravenous, and stuff a piece of cake into my mouth. I wonder why I’m so hungry…until I remember that I never ate lunch at work. I wanted to drink a cup of coffee and was therefore avoiding eating meat. By the time I actually wanted to eat, it was just a bit too late, and I was worried about being fleishik later.

When these things happen, I wonder why I do it. Why do I abuse my body the way I do? And I’m not speaking from a health freak, gluten free, low carb, vegan place. I’m not that person. I’m not looking to cut white sugar out of my diet, or avoid red meat. I’m going to continue eating eggs and dairy products. I don’t do anything extremely abusive to my body, like smoking, or drugs, or excessive drinking. I don’t hurt myself on purpose, or fast regularly. I don’t even go to Zumba (which my friends love, but I’ve been told is bad for the joints), but I also don’t take care of my body the way I could.

At first, I thought there were a number of reasons for this behavior, and I started a list. But, then I noticed that really, the whole list was sub-categories to the first idea. So, in a nutshell, the reason I treat my body the way I do is that often, I have some priority that comes before whatever I would be doing to take care of myself better, and these priorities exist in all aspects of life. For example, I’d love to go to the local yoga class, and I believe it would benefit me greatly. But I only have so much time in a week, and I don’t’ want to give up my art class. I’ve decided that, at least for the time being, the art class is more important to me than the exercise. That was a conscious decision that I made, and which I revisit every couple of months. I know that I can always change my mind; what’s good for me today may grow stale, or just become less enjoyable or appropriate as time passes. And that’s okay. For now, it’s still the art class that’s winning.

Built in to that is the assumption that I can’t leave the house in the evening too much. This may  or may not be objectively true, but is definitely a consideration for me. This decision affects not only my physical health, but many aspects of my life. For example, a number of years ago, I used to go to a local Torah class on the writings of Rav Kook. After a while, it became more difficult for me to go out in the evenings, so I dropped it. The same Rabbi is teaching a similar class now, at a different location, also nearby, but it’s on Tuesdays, which I had decided to dedicate to date nights with my kids. So, no Torah class. There are so many intriguing prospects that come up, which I must pass by because of this  “don’t go out in the evenings” rule. And, to be clear, I don’t think it’s misplaced at all. With a large family, a full time job, and a house to take care of, there is a justification to this. But, it means that I keep feeling cheated out of various opportunities.

As well as my time, I also prioritize with my spending. The money for the art class is already an “extra”, and I don’t have too many of those available. I have friends who seem to just spend on whatever they fancy, eating out with friends every other week, and then a date night each Thursday. They buy new clothes and shoes much more often than I do, and even their grocery bills are higher. Maybe they even buy a coffee on the way to work in the mornings, or get lunch at the local sandwich shop. I’m lucky to have a job where coffee is available (and we usually have milk in the fridge) and meals are provided. But, all the other stuff – that’s not on the top of my list. I know how to treat myself, but I also try to be a saver rather than a spender, as does my husband, and our household budget (which, after all, is a statement of our priorities) reflects that. So, when I see ads for different classes and seminars, or when my art teacher wants to take us on a trip to the museum or the botanical gardens, I hesitate, because these outings cost extra. I must choose where I want to invest the resources that I have now, and now, I don’t have the extra (time or money) in my budget.

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There is also a subconscious decision that I make almost every night. I prefer my evening down time, relaxing alone while everyone else sleeps, to rising early and taking a walk in the neighborhood. Often I misconstrue this as laziness, but it isn’t. There have been many articles extolling this down time, and proving its necessity. Or at least, I try to convince myself of that while I’m surfing the ‘net instead of writing my novel or, you know, sleeping.

Then there’s the fact that I prioritize my afternoon cup of coffee (sometimes accompanied by a few squares of delicious chocolate), over a nutritious meal. That’s probably the least logical decision that I make, on a regular basis. Well, some days more than others. Who cares about coffee? It’s just a social construct, or something, anyway, right? I mean, I can relax just fine without it, and I’ll bet the caffeine is probably really bad for my blood pressure. So, what’s the deal? I just like the taste of coffee and chocolate. I want to enjoy something, as I sit down to my break, after the most stressful part of my day. But maybe I can reframe this to include something more healthy in my break? Maybe instead of vegging out with coffee and chocolate, I can do a few sit-ups, or lift some weights. I can find an online exercise routine and get some endorphins in my system – those are supposed to make you feel good, right? That way, I can eat healthier, and be healthier.

Speaking of coffee, on Fridays, (remember, the day I ruin my feet and my back?) I’m often racing through to the finish line, hoping that this will be the week I get to sit back on our porch swing, and enjoy a cup before candle lighting. That week hasn’t come yet, unfortunately. I could argue that even that is a statement of priority. If it was really that important, I’d buy challah rather than bake, or delegate more of the pre-Shabbat tasks, in order to make sure I was left with those few minutes before candle lighting. And my feet would hurt less, too.

Which brings me to the fact that sometimes, what I choose to prioritize is not completely random. In some cases, I actually do make the “right decision.” This reminds me of my friend who continues to work as a cook and cleaner in our day care, in spite of terrible back pain (she has discs that have collapsed into each other) because she needs to provide for her family. Likewise, on Fridays, I push myself through, often on my feet the whole day, eating only a bowl of cereal in the morning, and maybe some pasta or a rice cake with tuna fish at lunchtime, because I have a higher purpose. I want my home to be clean, dishes done and floor washed, with delicious food warming on the hot plate, at least once a week. And it’s not simple cleanliness I’m after, either. I want to be ready for those angels who may decide to join us this week. I need to greet the Shabbat queen.

And, cue the very first answer that came to mind, when I first asked myself why my back hurts. We are raised to value the ephemeral more than the tangible. Spirituality, or, at least, religiosity, hold a lot more weight than physicality. Even if you’re not the spiritual type, often the intellectual is much more meaningful than the corporeal aspect of life. After all, learning Torah is the ultimate goal, right? Especially since, through learning, we become closer to God. How many stories are there of great tzaddikim who barely ate, who gave up their new shoes, or their recently earned wage to do a kindness for someone else? Because the act of chesed will live on, even after the body dies and disintegrates. The ephemeral is also eternal – it’s the only thing we will take with us when we finally “shuffle off this mortal coil.” But, I can’t believe that we are meant to disregard, or destroy the vehicle with which we do these acts that connect us to immortality. Because, without a body, or with an injured or destroyed body, we will be unable to perform the mitzvot, which are essentially our ticket into Paradise.

Apparently, the Torah gives two commandments that urge us to take better care of ourselves. One, is “venishmartem me’od l’nafshotechem”, (“be exceedingly careful with your lives”) which means that one should be very careful not to put himself into a position that would endanger his life. The other is “v’chai bahem,” literally, “and live by them.” What could be clearer than that? And still, the Gemara has to explain, “to live by them, and not to die by them.” Good advice. It’s why I take the medications the doctor prescribes, drink water, and look both ways before I cross the street. Because God told me to take care of myself.

I always say that Judaism is a moderate religion. We are not meant to be epicureans, of course. But, we are also not meant to be ascetics. There is a time for everything under the sun, and our bodies are right here in this world, able to bask in the glow of the shining sun. So, let’s stop disrespecting everything our bodies do for us, and try reinvesting in them. We don’t need to reprioritize our whole lives, but we can revisit the decisions we make, and the habits we have. There are certainly ways to add healthy habits into our hectic schedules – things like keeping a cold bottle of water on hand, parking further away from the store to get a few more steps in, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. After all, only when they are strong can our bodies continue to serve us faithfully. I can only imagine the rewards we will reap…