The Elephant In The Room

About that elephant; let me set the stage.

A few- hey, I’m an old guy; a few, in this case is about 15- a few years ago I was at an endocrinology conference focusing on adult onset diabetes. The keynote speaker, a rather famous female researcher- at that time and place her gender added gravitas to her presentation- she began her remarks in a severe and scolding tone admonishing us. poor benighted audience of mere clinicians that we were, that we must never, never tell our patients that they had any responsibility for their diabetes  because, after all, it was plainly entirely genetic and that this fact set up such a maelstrom of hormones, desires, mood disorders and needs that no adult onset diabetic should be held accountable in any way for their condition. We were to manage their disease with a vast array of pharmaceuticals from antidepressants to neuro-stimulants to the panoply of directly acting anti-diabetic medications. She knew her drugs.

Well, as you will have guessed, I thought she was little more than an idiot; intelligent but an idiot nevertheless. I sat in stunned but rapt attention; I didn’t want to miss any nuance of meaning because there had to be one. There wasn’t. I left lamenting the damage she might have done to some of those present. As I think about it I doubt many accepted her truncated ideas about the human person; the absence of judgment, will, intention, desire and hope that make up so much of our lives. Maybe no one bought it. Maybe.

So back to the elephant in the room. From looking around at various web sites, blog spots and advertisements in the media I find that there is little mention of character. Character is the long ignored elephant. Character matters.

Many sites, bodybuilding sites are great illustrations of this, offer rep/set schemes or mind sets or attitudes for consumption that promise, in fact can deliver, whatever body changing goal you desire. Just do this particular X, Y times and result Z will follow. Read another site and it turns out you need to do any particular Y, X times for Z result. Come back another day to the same site and sure enough you need to do any particular N, Q times to achieve Z results.

Or take this supplement, this drug, this surgery; overcome your childhood traumas and you will eat less or more or better or whatever. From obesity advice to physique advice everyone gives advice as if there were a magic combination of foods, moods and behaviors that would result in whatever the desired end might be: bigger biceps, slimmer waists, faster quarter miles.

Well none of these changes can be achieved, at least for any period of time, without character. I want to describe this mysterious quality and show how various counterfeits can appear to contribute to the desired end of health without finally actually delivering it.

We sometimes imagine that science has described the forces that hold the universe together, so to speak, when in fact science has done no such thing. Gravity is understood by the demonstrable relationships between objects of various masses. True enough, but ‘gravity’ remains an immaterial ‘thing’ in the universe of objects, concepts and equations describing the relationships and is not itself visible or available to our senses. The fact that it is immaterial does not make us doubts its existence but it should alert us to the fact that there are forces that do not easily fall under the normal rubric of ‘things’ in the universe that still matter. Hmmm, actually matter a lot.

Now, I took this last little detour to inoculate you against the easy, early skeptic who will doubt my project of describing and caring about something as immaterial as ‘character.’

‘Character’ has suffered under the current societal slander of ‘morals.’ Let me be quick to separate the two; not because I don’t think morals matter but because that is a fight too large for my writing skill’s capacity for description and is not really important for my advocacy of character.

Character matters for achieving athletic and health goals because one of the hallmarks of character is consistency; constancy, firmness of purpose, endurance of purpose, the ability to divine, discern, perceive the proper application of constant behavior in confusing circumstances. “Gee, I need to take care of my health but I need to work late and eat bad food to afford my family’s needs.” Confusing or just inadequately unpacked as a duty and expression of character?

OK, so to be clear I am not telling you those set/rep schemes don’t matter nor that childhood trauma doesn’t exist or matter but I am telling you that there exists, I can see it by its effects in people’s lives, there exists a ‘force’ that shapes peoples future self that is not the mere aggregation of all the helps, hurts, insults and gifts of life. There is a force we can access, that we can snatch from the pure air around us like a magic firefly in the night of this life that can make the future better, our health better and our relationships better. That magic firefly has a name and it is ‘Character.’

You see, by beginning to describe it we are beginning to ‘see’ it; the way we ‘see’ gravity or the weak force or the strong force. It exists in the spaces between our choices.

Depending on your cosmology, gravity either began, came into existence, as a fully developed force, its equations were always stable, or it ‘evolved’ along with nucleogensis and stellar evolution. As I am a mathematical realist I know the full set of descriptors were there from the beginning and thus gravity did not evolve; I believe some analogous property of character is true as well. You could wake up tomorrow and have full access to this marvelous energy or strength. However, for the sake of our fear of failure let’s imagine it is more like a muscle and start with the little things and get our character stronger over time. An example of this is parent’s belief that children learning to regularly brush their teeth will lead to the habits of hours of sustained concentration in adult life.

I’ve clearly got a lot of work to do to finish describing character and its role in health and fitness but I, here alone in my office, imagine that you kind of know what I am talking about and will have noticed, now that I’ve pointed it out, that this is the missing piece of the puzzle, ‘the elephant in the room’, that accounts for the endless treadmill of advice and direction that passes for health counseling; why we go from one model of change to another, ever on the hunt for our own ‘silver bullet’ of healing and change.

So for now I leave you with this question. How is your character? Mine needs work.

Smile, Have Fun, God Speed,

Dr. Mike

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