We’re all gonna die anyway, so what’s the point of eating well and exercising? (No, really.)
Ever made a roomful of 17-year-old girls cry? I have!
I was wrapping up my talk at Smith on how important it is to take care of your body in college – something I 100% did not do – when a hand went up.
“That was great, thank you,” said a gal in the first row. Like most of the folks in the room, she was an incoming student, and pain-in-the-ass smart. “As I’m sure you know, we’re all going to die. In the end, life is meaningless. What’s the point of putting in all the effort to be ‘well?’”
I stood there waiting for a someone to yell “KIDDING!” But they all just sat there.
They actually wanted an answer.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “Thanks for the reminder.”
They laughed a little, while I looked down at my shoes.
I’m gonna die, just like everyone else. Why not get wasted? Why not begin every day with a coffee roll from Dunkin Donuts? Why not two? Why not have sloppy, anonymous sex in parking lots? Why not give in to every desire, make the most scintillating choice in every moment, die young, and leave an attractive corpse?
“Well, there’s a few reasons,” I said. “Eating well, exercising, and generally not abusing yourself means you’re more comfortable and able to do things like carry groceries.”
They nodded politely.
“Also, unless you’ve got a trust fund, acting on every impulse is apt to leave you riddled with disease, homeless, and smelling like hell.” They giggled (most of them, anyway – not the ones with trust funds).
I was tense, standing there, and I made myself relax a little.
Hang on, I know the answer.
“Why bother? The answer is the first minute,” I said, and I stood up straight, the way you do when you finally cut through the bullshit and get to the truth.
“Even if you sleep late, eventually every day begins, and in the first minute of each day you have to face yourself. Day after day until you die you will wake up and remember. Memories of what you did the night before will bubble to the surface.
“Those memories will come with feelings. If you binged on ice cream or box wine or cocaine, that will be one of your first thoughts, and it will come with the weight of self-hate on your lungs and the deep bruise of shame in your gut.
“If you’re already not treating yourself well, those feelings may be subtle ‘cause you’re young and you think you have all the time in the world to turn things around. But unless you practice treating yourself well, soon you’ll be in your 50s and you’ll wake up and the pain of that first minute will be so intense that the day ahead will feel like a prison sentence.”
The room was quiet and still, save some sniffles. Ah, the pained whimper of real learning!
“BUT!” I said, (there’s always a but) “if you practice treating yourself well, then in your first minutes you’ll remember that you met a goal. You’ll remember that you ate food that nourished you, and that you moved and played with the body you’re so lucky to have.
“Those positive memories will come with good feelings – with deep, meaningful pleasure. A sense of peace. Accomplishment. Rightness.
“Practice living with intention and treating yourself well. Bother to care for and about yourself and your body, and your first minutes will feel like new beginnings. Ignore your body’s needs, neglect yourself, or continue to justify not treating yourself well, and your first minutes will be torture.
“And here’s the thing – your first minutes are unavoidable. Even if you graduate and get rich, you can’t ever outsource your first minute. You can’t hire someone to deal with it for you.
“Yes, you’re gonna die. We’re all gonna die. But until the hammer drops, you alone have to experience the first minute of every single day of your life. We’re talking tens of thousands of times. Practicing wellness every day, or not, is what really makes life feel meaningful. Or not. Dying only happens once. Time-wise, relative to the those thousands of first minutes, dying is small potatoes.
“I’ve spent years harming myself and years healing myself. I’ve had thousands of first minutes that were torture and thousands that were good, and I can tell you that nothing has more of an impact on how we feel about just being alive.
“Compared to how you feel in your first minutes, it doesn’t matter what degree you have or where you live or how many clubs you join. It doesn’t matter what you do for work or how much money you make or who you marry. It doesn’t matter how you look or where you work or what you wear. It doesn’t matter who you spend time with or what books you read or how you pray. It doesn’t even matter what you weigh or how old you are.”
I looked over at the professor who’d invited me to do the talk. She was smiling so hard I thought her face might break.
“Not to say that stuff has no impact on how you feel about life. Obviously, it does. But unless you treat yourself well and feel well, then it doesn’t matter how much good stuff you’ve got going on ‘cause it’ll all just feel like a fancy box that you live in and cry in and resent until you die.”
I let the last sentence land.
Then I said “Any other questions?”
I got one more. Something about weight loss. That answer was much shorter.
I gave that talk almost 10 years ago. I still get emails from students who were there, saying that what they learned that day had more of an impact on them than anything they went on to learn in four years of college. They’re happier than they might’ve been otherwise, because they live and make choices with an eye toward feeling good in their next first minute.
Here’s to every single one of your remaining first minutes, Love.
May they be good, and many.
Love, love, love-