Overcoming Temptation

If adherence is the principal player in the triumph of our goals; temptation is it’s villain. If fitness programs proceeded unimpeded, results would be the norm. New Year’s resolutions would become successes, and new promises would be made the following year. Sadly, they act more like Groundhog’s Day, with the same goals set on “repeat.” The seduction of power can crumble a kingdom and the lure of avarice can derail a career. Temptation is not some antiquated, cautionary tale confined to the Garden of Eden in the pages of Genesis, but a tragic fascination that follows us like a shadow; leaving behind broken resolutions and incomplete goals in its destructive path.

Every one of us has fallen to temptations that obstruct our fitness goals. All it takes is for one energetic young server with a killer smile to approach your table after dinner and ask, “Save some room for dessert?” If I had a nickel for every, “I probably shouldn’t, but yes,” response, I would be a wealthy person. Regardless if you spout platitudes like “a lack of discipline” or use complex descriptions of neural circuitry to describe what’s happening, it can be summarized perfectly in the word temptation. The impulsive reaction is to eliminate the sources of temptation entirely; akin to shutting your eyes and hoping the monster underneath the bed disappears. For most of us, this “cold-turkey” approach has mixed results. The outcomes are terrible when the abolition of such temptations are done from the outside. For example, the Eighteenth Amendment, imposing prohibition, was such a debacle, it was repealed thirteen years later; but not before giving us organized crime in its wake. Recall the last time you swore-off sweets. What was continually on your mind from that point forward? Sweets, of course. There must be some other way, where we can still savor life but not collapse under intemperance. temptation is a part of the human condition, but its power needs reduction to allow our goals to flourish.

In elementary school, I was told that George Washington was the father of our country. I grew up under the impression that he could not tell a lie about the “cherry tree” and had a mouthful of wooden teeth. I cringed at the thought of a thorn stabbing my gums; getting one in my index finger was painful enough as it was. I come to discover that there was no cherry tree, and though he had lifelong difficulties with his dentition; they were not made of wood. The real George Washington was far more interesting and provides a map of how we can thwart the overwhelming force of temptation. As you’ll see, the moniker of “Father of our Country” is a gross understatement.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, colonial America was far from stable. The government under the Articles of Confederation was feeble and ineffectual. Peace with Britain was documented and ratified, but uncertain. The Continental Army was fatigued, hungry, and unpaid. Many of the loyal men even went without shirts. Washington wrote in a letter, “The temper of the army is much soured, and has become more irritable than any period since the commencement of the war.” Despite his prestigious contemporaries, like Jefferson and Franklin, Washington stood alone as the symbol of the Revolution; a revered man, with unparalleled valor. His soldiers, the public, and even some founding fathers urged Washington to march his army directly to Congress’ footsteps; sword drawn, usurp their authority, and declare himself King George I of America.

The timeline of history is punctuated with tyrants and warlords. The idea of a nation conceived in liberty and asserting that “all men are created equal” was a completely foreign idea; it had never been done. Therefore, it was a natural desire for many to bestow absolute power on their hero. We all know what’s like to be tempted by a pastry now and again. Some have known more serious temptations. Very few of us, likely none of us have ever faced the proposition of complete dominion over a country; for life. We’d like to think altruistically and believe that we would decline the offer. But, let’s not kid ourselves. I would say “spoiler alert,” but I imagine you know how things turned out, and if, at this moment, you are sitting comfortably; you are a product of that decision.

Two days before Christmas, 1783, Washington indeed marched up to Congress. He appeared before them at the statehouse in Annapolis, bowed, and resigned his commission. John Trumbull, who captured the moment in a painting that now hangs in the Capitol, called it “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world.” It didn’t stop there. He was unanimously elected to be our first President and implored to serve a second term, which he did. There was a tremendous demand that he should run for the third time. Perhaps now that he tasted power, he may not want to relinquish it. In another bold act of patriotism, Washington voluntarily stepped down in 1797, setting the tradition of a two-term presidency that would last for 150 years. When King George III, Washington’s nemesis during the war heard of his opponent’s actions, he asked his painter, “What will he do next?” The painter replied, “He will likely return to his farm.” To which the King responded, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Seventeen years later, while Napoleon sat exiled on the Island of Elba, he complained, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”

What can we take away from these monumental displays of restraint? Let your mind wander on what life would be like if he took the alternative route. His words to Congress give us a hint into his motivations for relinquishing command, and how we can use it in our daily commitment to adherence.

“Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence.”

In the first portion, he expresses his happiness with the establishment of a sovereign nation. This was the entire point of the Declaration of Independence, the Boston Tea Party and eight years of bloodshed against the world’s greatest army. After the preamble of the Declaration, is a list of twenty-seven grievances against the British crown. Washington’s desire to break the political bands from the monarchy and establish an independent nation was greater than his desire for anything else, including returning to his wife at Mt. Vernon and the temptation of near infinite authority. It’s in this concept, where we can infer part of the solution. Your desire for the goal must be greater than the desire for any alluring interference. It may sound obvious, but it’s not that simple. If it were, all you would need is a spike of motivation, and you’re off to the races. An energy drink or the right instagram hashtag would suffice, and as I’m sure you’re aware, that doesn’t work. At the end of his message, he refers to his appointment as commander, as something he accepted with “diffidence,” which means humility and modesty. This offers us the second clue, which I’ll discuss later.

Not long ago, I rode a horse for the first time; they are truly majestic. She had more muscle in her neck than I did in my entire body; admittedly not difficult to achieve. She was a gentle soul, taking great care of me, going up and down hills. However, I knew at any moment she could launch into a full gallop, and all I could do was hang on for dear life. If we were on the same page, we were fine. During the ride, I had plenty of time to think. I thought that perhaps the horse represented our goals, and we should take great care in not allowing our horses to become distracted. I soon realized that it’s not the goal’s fault that we submit to temptation; it’s ours and the decisions we make. Then, I remembered a story from long ago where the wrong horse was embraced, leading to ruin.

We possess “goal horses” and we face “Trojan horses.” For this discussion, Trojan horses represent immediately gratifying pleasures that delay or even obliterate your goal. I’ve had countless students tell me that they would pay money for someone to follow them around and slap junk food out of their hands. This reminds me of the Trojan priest, Laocoon, who, suspicious of the Trojan Horse cried out in vain, “do not trust this horse!” Essentially, clients were asking for someone to yell “do not trust that donut,” as it was swatted it away. Donuts are delicious, that’s not likely to change, and it’s unrealistic to outlaw them or to coerce you into thinking they are repulsive. If you arrive at that conclusion on your own, so be it. But, how do we minimize the power of the Trojan horses? We do this by increasing the size and strength of our goal horse.

Any number of methods can be used to grow the goal horse. It is in my experience, that she requires daily feeding. Any lapse in time reduces her size and renders her powerless to compete against Trojan horses. The first step is writing down your goals. This may sound elementary; which it is, but that does not diminish its effectiveness. I prefer handwritten with a pen; I endorse this practice because it is therapeutic and stimulates your mind, but I will leave that to personal preference if you wish to type. Create a vision board. I was previously cynical about this process, but I have seen the results of people who have constructed one. Join a group or connect with an accountability partner; it could be a friend, a family member, or a stranger. Weight Watchers and CrossFit didn’t rise to prominence through “points” or “WODs,” as blasphemous as that sounds. They succeeded due to social support and encouragement. Do you remember the second clue about Washington? It was his diffidence; his humility. In this context, humility is understanding that you should not go it alone; we all need help. Even the great general needed his military and assistance from the French Army. We are better in partnerships; make them.

Building a larger and stronger goal horse requires actions based upon the decisions that you make; decisions between competing horses. A single meaningful decision in the right direction is greater than a thousand positive thoughts without effort. When we say “yes” to one thing, we are saying “no” to all other options. The capacity of being able to say “yes,” is limited by our faculty to say “no.” If our willpower is stuck under the heel of temptation, we must rescue it. We can’t close our eyes and expect the monster to vanish; we must open them, look it dead-on and defeat it. The oversized beast is not fearsome. It appears to us as gifts, delights, and pleasures, like the Trojan horse that gets wheeled inside the gates, only to sabotage us from within. Trojan horses, shrunken down to fit into our palm, cannot win. So, mount your colossal goal horse, ride courageously into the mouth of temptation and exit, unscathed. Do not remain leashed by your temptations; place them at the end of your rope to enjoy as you wish, and render them incapable of corrupting your journey into the mountains of success.