No Fate But What We Make
I was eleven years old. I had just moved across town and into a new school district.
I was the new kid, the poor kid, and, since my parents were in the middle of an extremely messy divorce, a pretty quiet and weird kid as well. I was a friendless outcast. Either you’ve had the experience of being ‘that kid’ at some point in your life and you understand what that’s like, or you haven’t, and you never will.
After a few months of solitude, I managed to ingratiate myself into a small group of awkward, video-game obsessed dorks. I was still at the bottom of of even their totem pole. I was the one whose presence they tolerated, the butt of jokes, the loser among the group of losers. But it was infinitely better than being alone. I had friends to eat with. I had somewhere to go after school. I had plans on the weekend. Who cares if those plans rarely amounted to anything but eating candy and playing Super Nintendo with a bunch of losers who didn’t even like me? It was something.
After a year of junk food and video games, I became the fat kid. Or at least, the pudgy kid. I got new pants. I dropped down to a less competitive hockey league. But I was comfortable. Life was free of pain, and would remain so as long as I kept my head down, accepted my status as the soft, awkward, disrespected dork among dorks. I kept spending my free time in nightly candy and video game festivals.
I don’t remember exactly what made me see the path that I was on. Maybe it was a side profile in a full length mirror. Maybe it was the realization that all the cool kids were getting girlfriends, and I wasn’t.
I had a moment of clarity. I realized that I didn’t like who I had become. I didn’t like being fat. I didn’t like being the kid everyone picked on. I didn’t want my high school experience to be defined by whether I bought a Playstation or a Sega Dreamcast. I saw the path that I was on, and I got depressed.
Then I made the most important realization of my life.
It was April, and I was about to finish the seventh grade. I was laying in bed, early in the evening, contemplating how much my life sucked. I thought about how bored I was, hanging out with the same annoying assholes every weekend. I thought about how much I dreaded taking my shirt off in gym class. I thought about how great it would be to switch lives with one of the cool kids.
And then a new idea punched me in the face. I can still call up the clarity, the joy, the sense of purpose that I instantly felt in the moment I finally understood:
“I can control this.”
I can control how I look. I can control how people treat me. I can control who I am.
Some of you think this is obvious to everyone. But it wasn’t, not to me at that time. And by the looks the young men of my generation, it’s not obvious to most of them either.
Suddenly, everything looked different. I started seeing the aspects of my life which I despised as the direct result of the daily choices that I made. This was not a pleasant experience. It was painful and humbling. Acknowledging the leading roll we play in our personal failures always is. But it was a necessary pain, and a wise investment in future happiness.
I did something for the first time that night, that I have done hundreds of times since: I wrote a letter to myself. In it, I described the situation I was in. Then I described the situation I wanted to be in. Finally, I made a list of the new habits and actions that would get me from A to B.
I didn’t like being fat. So, I fired up America Online and started an AltaVista search for information on diet and exercise. I built a simple workout program for myself: One hundred each of push-ups, sit-ups, back extensions, squats, chair dips, and a five minute wall-sit every night. I was twelve.
The rule was, I had to get through every one of the exercises, in as many sets as it took. I had to get through the complete workout six times per week, no matter what else was going on in my life. I used a ruler to trace out a grid on a sheet of blank paper, committed the simple program to it, and tacked it to my wall.
From then on, I spent an hour every night working out, alone in my room. I told no one.
Every Sunday night, for the next seven months, I looked back on a week of successful workouts. Every Sunday night, after finishing my last set, I wrote out the chart for the next week. Six exercises down, six days across. Every Sunday night, the vanquished chart joined its fallen brothers in a desk drawer.
I watched all week as an army of checkmarks marched across the page. I worshiped those checkmarks. I would have cut off my own hand rather than tick one off before it was earned. Outside of that bedroom, I remained a loser. The rest of my life did not stop being painful and humiliating. The outside world continued to see me as a loser. But I started caring less, because I knew they were wrong. They only saw the old me. They didn’t know about the marching checkmarks and the growing stack of complete weeks in my desk drawer. They didn’t know about the man I was becoming.
A year’s worth of chocolate bars, coke, nachos and Street Fighter Alpha tournaments started to melt pounds off my midsection. Puberty and a growth spurt finished off what was left.
Meanwhile, I started cutting off my old friends. They were not adding to my life. They had always been obstacles, and now I saw them as such. They did not respect me. They saw me as what I had always been to them, as how I had always obligingly seen myself – the dork of the dorks. I had no use for their reinforcement of that self-image.
I replaced them with two kids who had just moved into the city. New and unknown, and unknowing of my old self. One day, I invited them to play road hockey with me. Soon, I started inviting other kids from school and from my hockey team. They were used to Elihu the dork, Elihu the non-entity. But here was another valuable lesson: People see you as you see yourself, and they treat you as you expect to be treated. Road hockey on Elihu’s street was the place to be for the summer between grade seven and eight.
It was also the summer that I rediscovered joy.
I rediscovered what it was like to have true friends, not just people who tolerated your presence. I rediscovered the excitement of running around a suburban neighbourhood causing trouble, instead of playing video games. I kissed a girl for the first time. I touched a boob. And all the while, my sense of discipline and agency increased as I grinded through my workouts, alone in my room at the end of every day. Life was better than I had ever imagined was possible.
When I started the eighth grade, I hit the ground running. After a summer of puberty, healthy eating, workouts, and days spent playing street hockey and playing outside, I was a fit, confident and handsome lad. Because I’d built my social circle from scratch over the summer, I had close friends from every group and became the social linchpin of my grade. I had become the master of my world.
I learned the most important lessons of my life in that summer, and they have been with me ever since:
I am in control.
I own my life.
I have free will.
Nothing is predetermined.
All of my successes, all of my failures, all of my strength, all of my weakness, belong solely to me.
I still have one of my first workout charts, carefully folded in an envelope in my desk at my father’s house. I think about it often, when I’m tempted to take it easy on myself. When I feel weakness in my heart, I use that piece of paper to remind me of what’s possible in life. I use it to remind myself of who I am, and the strength that I have. It is my amulet.
Fifteen years have passed since I wrote that letter, and grunted through my first lonely set of solitary push-ups.
Over the years, I have gone through proud eras of intense focus, boldness, and courage. I have also fallen into laziness, complacency and failure. But whenever I find myself slipping, I think back to that letter I wrote to myself, when I first realized that this is my life, and I am free to choose what sort of man to become.
This blog is the continuation of that letter that I started writing to myself, all those years ago. I write to remind myself, and anyone else who cares to listen, of the one truth from which everything else flows:
We are masters of our fate
If I choose to rebel against cowardice, spiritual decay, physical deterioration, intellectual laziness, and all the other evils plaguing my generation, sucking young men down into dark pits of mediocrity, then I am free to do so. As are you.
Now let’s start kicking some ass.