When I Lost Control, I Started to Lose Weight

There are lots of versions of this story, and while it would be just perfect if it were true, its origins have been traced back to a 1931 joke. Modern versions claim this is an “actual” transcript of a U.S. naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland.

Americans: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

Americans: “This is the captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.”

Canadians: “No, I say again, you divert YOUR course.”

Americans: “This is the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers, and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. That’s one-five degrees north, or counter measures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.”

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

As we approach our most sacred time of year, we consider the ways we want to change to become our best selves. Paradoxically, many of us try to control and manage our process in ways that make change feel impossible.

Our belief that we can control it all is often pointless in the face of an unmovable force. What sets in motion the clash between the stubborn aircraft carrier and the immovable lighthouse is that the captain is only responding to that which is visible to him—the emanating light—but has no concept of what lies hidden in the dark. We have all, at some point, stubbornly tried to effect change in something that we had no actual power to change. Once we discover—as the captain did—that our efforts are futile, then we have the possibility to take positive action to avert calamity.

On my recent sabbatical, I studied about the connections between religion and obsession with food. For many of us, food and weight are real and constant battles….emotional and spiritual.

For me, and I think for others as well, so much of it has to do with what we think we can control.

Interestingly enough I have found in my rabbinic travels that some of the most powerful people in their respective vocational disciplines….those who have control over so much of the way life works, struggle to maintain a healthy nutritional lifestyle.

I can totally empathize. In 2010, The New York Times published an article about scientific research describing clergy as suffering from “…obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans.” It was suggested that clergy have so much to manage and control in service to others that, when it came to taking care of themselves, they lost—or maybe abandoned—all control.

When I first started my current job as senior rabbi of my congregation, I thrived with the challenge. I could meet everyone; impress everyone; counsel everyone; teach, pastor, care about, minister everyone. I could raise money, give meaningful sermons, and help others through their familial difficulties. I had only one small child at the time (I now have three), an incredibly patient wife, and a great yearning to prove to the congregation and the world that I was “good enough.”

So, while at work, I maintained tight control. People were amazed that a young man—barely 40 years of age—could manage a demanding 1,200-family congregation. Honestly, I was amazed myself, and I was determined not to disappoint anyone. Then, when I arrived home every night around 10 p.m., I ate….and ate some more. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong. On the contrary, I felt like I was doing everything right, and I rewarded myself by eating. I deserved to eat. All day long I helped other people become whole, and at night I filled my own empty holes with food.

Of course, I gained weight. It was not noticeable at first. My wife didn’t want to raise the issue because I was sensitive about it, and I managed to convince her that I had “earned” the right to eat extra food. I was succeeding at this difficult job! Of course I needed an extra treat. I ended up treating myself to an extra 40 pounds. How did I gain that much so easily, and without really noticing? How was I so out of control?

I could control my job, but at the cost of having very little control over myself, my weight, and my health.
In retrospect, and after a lot of soul-searching, I saw that my weight gain was about other parts of me that felt empty. Food started to comfort me. Quite the set-up for a lifetime of food struggles: But of course, the more the food “comforted” me, the heavier I got. I wanted to get thin, but food was the only filler I knew, and it was very effective. It was a horrible cycle that felt impossible to break, or, indeed, to control.

So, in order to try to stick around for my young children, I hope for a long, long time, I have begun to make changes. Not through traditional dieting, but through learning, exercising and perhaps, most importantly, I have let go of the notion that I am in control of it all. I am more open to my inadequacies. I understand that I cannot be perfect; that I will disappoint someone, someplace along my way. I am open to help; more open to the idea that in my vulnerability I find my real strength as a person, man and rabbi.

There is light beyond the darkness. We just have to be more open to the idea that we can only control that which is humanly legitimate. The other parts over which we have no control, we might just have to surrender a bit to a partnership with that which is divine.

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