“Robert, do you drink coffee?” She asked me matter-of-factly, as if it were the simplest question in the world. It wasn’t simple, though, at least not to me; so I demurred. “Why do you ask?” I replied. “I’m wondering because you seem like the kind of guy who gets up early and stays up late.” It was the fall of 1995. I was a junior at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and I was in the middle of the ugly aftermath of one of the most profound experiences of my life (my summer doing Kingdomworks; I’ve written about this extensively on this blog). My questioner was a Resident Assistant that I was on staff with. I was an RA too, and we were on our fall retreat at a cabin in the woods, I believe. Her question and follow up statement have stuck with me through the years, of course, because that’s just the kind of guy I want to be. Her impression of me was that I was deep, thoughtful, intense; and I suppose I must admit that’s the kind of impression I’d like to create. It’s no accident, though. I do wrestle with things mightily, my mind is constantly racing, and I’m seldom content to accept things at face value. I’m an idealist, and as is often the case for idealists, I’m also a bit cynical (and for good reason). Still, by the grace of God, I’m no quitter. I want to be in the fight; I want to “be the change.” So I do get up early and stay up late, and largely since the incident described above coffee has been my companion and crutch as I did so.
I didn’t start out drinking it every day by any means. I was more of a “social (coffee) drinker.” I wasn’t especially fond of the taste; so like my mother, I usually added cream and sugar, which I guess will make anything taste good. Anyway, I began to drink coffee more and more, especially with my friend and mentor David, with whom I had breakfast once a week for nearly two years. Even that was a long time ago, though, and it’s been over the past decade or so that I’ve really been relying on coffee daily. Studies have shown that habitual coffee drinkers over time have their natural energy and alertness so dulled that their caffeine “fix” serves only to bring them back up to the level that most people who don’t depend on caffeine exist at naturally. I hope that’s true, because I’m done with it, for good. Coffee isn’t nicotine, but I don’t simply drink coffee. I’ve been sucked into the whole milieu, and I’ve downed (much more than) my share of mochas and lattes and special holiday beverages and the like, and I’ve probably spent a small fortune over the past decade paying for it all (as is true for those who need a daily nicotine fix), with the insufficient funds and more than ample waistline to prove it.
So, as of today, I’m done. I’ve been getting more healthy over the past couple of years (in fits and starts). I went from a max weight ever of 260 down to about 150 on my birthday last year (though my weight loss started at about 250; so it was only 100 pounds that I lost). The weight loss began when I took up running in July of 2009, and along the way I began eating better too. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced a bit of the proverbial diet “yo-yo” as I’ve crept back up to nearly 190 in the past few months, but I’m confident that I’m now headed back in the right direction. After passing a not insignificant kidney stone this past fall, I switched from regular coffee to drinking mostly decaf since caffeine is a diuretic and dehydration is one of the causes of kidney stones. Still, even decaf, as I’ve been learning, isn’t that great for me, and my “coffee” (read: “fancy sugar and calorie laden coffee beverages”) consumption is connected to some larger issues I’ve been avoiding for too long.
The truth is that I’m a compulsive eater. This isn’t my only compulsive behavior, but I won’t get into that here. Like my mother, I’ve used food over the years to dull my pain by activating pleasure centers in the brain. I always feel terrible after a binge, and it lead to some health problems for me over time. More generally, I think I have an addictive personality. I’ve been accused of being an “all or nothing” kind of guy, and for good reason. This may be some form of arrested development relating to my mother’s abuse of me as a child, but I digress. In any case, I’ve been doing the “all” for a while as it relates to food as of late (with the recent weight gain to show for it), and now I’m cycling back into the “nothing.”
You might suggest that I should grow up, that learning to enjoy things in moderation is the ideal I should aspire to, even/especially in regard to sweets, etc. In response to this I’d probably say that you’re right, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t care. No one encourages an alcoholic to drink in moderation, and that is the approach I think I need to take with this. I simply don’t do well with sweets, and so I need to steer clear of them. I read somewhere once that if you (ab)use food to cope with pain, you’ll never stop doing so until you address the pain. I know I need to continue to do this too. This will continue to be a lifelong journey, and the fact is I’ve already come a good distance down this path. It’s clear, though, that I have much, much further to go. I still have a lot of pain and anger, and it seems as if at every turn there are new reasons to be hurt or angry. As I’ve said, I know I need to continue to address all of those issues, but I hope I’ve learned enough to begin responding a bit differently to them. I pray that my heart will grow big enough to love the one who hurts me and find the love, peace, and justice in the circumstances that make me angry. I pray that these things will not victimize me but motivate me to keep running the race, to keep “fighting the good fight” (nonviolently, of course).
In the meantime, all the sweets, all the desserts, and yes- all the coffee- has got to go. I was inspired when I came across Blood: Water Mission and the 40 Days of Water Challenge, and I knew it was the right thing to do. Throwing money at a problem won’t solve it, I know; nor does participating in the ever more trendy custom of “giving up something for Lent” (read a great post about this here; apparently Eugene Cho and I had a similar idea) necessarily make me a better follower of Jesus, especially as I publicize my “sacrifice.” Still, drinking only water enables me to value it again, to remember how essential it is to life and participate with my brothers and sisters around the world who likewise only drink it- and can scarcely get enough of it. Speaking of scarcity, drinking only water also reminds me of the coming world water crisis and my need to do more to be part of the solution, starting by avoiding bottled water as much as possible. Of course, it will also be good for me as I hopefully drink enough to replace what I lose by running and cleanse my body.
So I’m really excited for Lent this year. I’m eager to give up sweets and sweetened beverages, and I’m intent on doing so for good (that is, for life). It’s better for me, and it’s better for the world. It puts me in solidarity with those who have so little, and such solidarity is sorely needed. This is a deeply spiritual act because it’s my contention that getting fat (as I was for so long and am again bordering on now) is a spiritual matter. How can I and so many “Americans” get overweight and obese while so much of the world starves? How blind do we have to be to not see that there is a direct correlation between the two, however complicated it all may be? If only I would (literally) consume less and encourage others to do likewise, more would be available to those who have nothing, so long as we work hard and intensely to see that they receive what they need. This is my call, one of the many reasons that keeps me up late and has me rising early each day. I may have to do so without coffee anymore, but my water and the early morning will remind me of the many who also keep long hours, not because they want to but because their destitute circumstances dictate that they have to. May they and I labor together.