I’ve recently been more and more interested in exercise and in keeping fit. I am a husband and father and want to be able to play with my kids. You seem like someone who exercises. How do I know if I am placing too much emphasis on being physically fit and when have I crossed over into mere vanity?
I really appreciate this question. Not only is it a question that I return to for myself quite often, but I have been asked this by many people. I don’t want to give anything away, but I need to be up front with the disclaimer that the final answer will ultimately involve you monitoring your own behavior and interior disposition. There will not be a black and white “do this, don’t do that” answer.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some important cues to pay attention to.
First, Catholicism affirms the goodness of the body. There have been philosophies and religions that have disparaged or minimized the importance of the body (as well as some that have placed too much emphasis on the body). But Catholicism constantly affirms that human beings are composed of body and soul. We are not merely bodies, and we are not merely souls. Because of this, we can accurately say that “your body is you.” Of course, your soul is also “you,” but for the moment it might help to tease out the value of the body.
While the body (as well as the soul) is subject to the wounds of the Fall, it retains an intrinsic goodness. St. John Paul II wrote, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible the invisible, the spiritual, and the divine.” The body reveals the person. Your body reveals you. Your body is the “vehicle” by which you learn things, come into contact with this world, and know and express love. The body is the tool that God used to redeem the world. It was precisely Jesus Christ’s willingness to live, suffer, die, and rise in his body that has saved us.
Easter reveals the dignity of the body: your body is destined for resurrection! Along those lines, the way we live in the body will determine our eternity. St. Paul says that we will be accountable for our actions in the body (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:10). He also noted, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
All of that is to say that the body is good and the body matters. Your body has value.
At the same time, the body does not have absolute value. The body is a good, but it is not an absolute good. This leads us to note that there are other things more important than the body. There are things that have greater value than this body. The First Letter to the Corinthians states, “Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:26). While it is destined for glory, the body is also prone to corruption.
While athletic discipline can be a help towards virtue, there are limitations.
First, there is the limitation of virtues that are naturally developed in athletic training. I always find it interesting when people seem to automatically associate fitness with good character. They will sign their kids up for sports because they “build character.”
While there are many character-building elements involved in physical training (things like hard work, discipline, perseverance, resilience, etc.), there are just as many vices present. While we admire the athlete who has worked hard and demonstrated the “triumph of the human spirit” in competition, athletic training can just as easily foster selfishness, ambition, and unhealthy comparison and competition, as well. If athletics were an unadulterated good, then every professional athlete would be a model of virtue. We know that this is not true.
Second, there are dangers inherent with any good thing that can be made into an ultimate thing. You wrote that you wanted to avoid vanity. That is a good thing to want to avoid. On that point, I know plenty of people who seem vain about the fact that they never exercise. They will boast of this as if it were an accomplishment to sit on the couch. Vanity can creep in regardless of what we choose to do (or not do). In addition, while vanity is possible, those dedicated to athletics are much more prone to far more serious temptations: identity and idolatry.
We have a tendency to define ourselves by our “wins” or our “weaknesses.” I have met many athletes who have not merely given their thoughts over to vanity, but they have actually associated their worth and their identity with their fitness level. I see this all of the time with our college athletes. For each of them, the day comes when they have their last game, their last race, or their last performance. These are college athletes, which means that they have worked incredibly hard and sacrificed a lot of their lives for their sport. And suddenly, they “used to be.” They “used to be” a baseball player. They “used to be” a cross-country runner. They “used to be” an athlete. Who are they now that they don’t have that anymore? A lot of our athletes go through a mini-identity crisis once their time competing at a certain level is taken away. This is a sign that something has gotten out of balance.
Speaking of balance, the temptation to idolatry is always present among really good things. Athletics and physical training are really good things. The problem is that we often have a tendency to make idols out of really good things. Therefore, an athlete will just have to watch to make sure that God alone remains as the Lord of one’s life.
Third, we have limited time in this life. There are so many positive benefits to physical exercise (not the least of which is being able to play with your kids!). There is a mental clarity and alertness that can come with regular exercise. In our over-distracted culture, the ability to be alone with one’s thoughts while on a walk or a run can almost be a daily retreat. Exercise is often time well-spent.
I invite you to see it in that light: you are “spending time.” I believe that physical exercise has more inherent value than most of the things we Americans do with our time, but there will always be a point of diminishing returns. There will always be a point where the benefits are no longer worth the amount of time we are investing in it.
I find a lot of value in the perspective of St. Francis of Assisi. He called his body “Brother Ass.” He did not despise it. He valued his body. His body could defy his will, but he trained it to obey him. St. Francis was aware that “Brother Ass” could revolt against him and get out of control, so he learned to master it. He fed it and trained it as a valuable part of himself. His sense of fitness was incredibly functional. That kind of functional fitness seems like a good thing to shoot for.
Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.