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Philosophy

On Being Overweight

Life can be viewed as a fast-moving wave; you can be the surfer riding it. i

Life can be viewed as a fast-moving wave; you can be the surfer riding it. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Life can be viewed as a fast-moving wave; you can be the surfer riding it.

Life can be viewed as a fast-moving wave; you can be the surfer riding it.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Suppose you and I each weigh 180 lbs. You've always been thin; I've recently lost 30 pounds. Suppose we eat exactly the same amount and are equally active. You maintain your weight, I steadily gain.

How can this be possible?

Because our bodies our different. Mine releases hormones that lower my metabolism and cause me to burn calories less efficiently; I lay on reserves of fat. You don't.

This is a superficial explanation. What we want to know is: Why are our bodies different in this way? Why do we respond so differently to the same situation?

Here's an answer that goes deeper: I am used to being heavier and I experience our common diet as deprivation; I'm consuming less than I'm used to; I feel as if I don't have enough; I shut myself down as a way of coping.

We reach this deeper explanation when we look to the past and appreciate that our lives are arcs shooting forth from the past. Or to change the image, our present condition is the front of a wave; we ourselves are the wave.

We sometimes think of ourselves as static beings confronting the world, tasked with deciding what to do. Should I go left or right? But we forget that we are not stationary; we are hurtling forward. We don't have time to look around; and if we did, we would hardly be able to evaluate what we see.

How can we change course in life? This can rarely be a matter of making choices. If we are waves, then our course is a function of the winds, the weather, the tides, and also of the contours of the earth beneath the water's surface. All this is out of our control. Yet it constitutes us.

Does this mean we are not free? Well, we are not free if freedom means an immunity to the ways in which we are sculpted by habit as well as by the world around us. If freedom means the ability to change course as a result of wanting to change course, or weighing up options, then we are not free.

But maybe there is a different way of thinking about our freedom. Let's change the picture once more. We are not the wave; we are surfers riding the wave. Although the wave conditions and controls our every move, with skill, with training, we learn to carve our own path along the water's surface.

If you want to lose weight, learn how to surf. That means learning to be responsive to the ways in which we are controlled by our past selves as well by the world around us.


You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook, Twitter and over at The Atlantic.

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