Friday, March 13, 2009

It's about showing up...

In 1995, I was a residence don at the University of Waterloo. One of my responsibilities as a don was to be a role model to a group of first year students – an older brother, an experienced peer, someone who had been through the trenches and knew what it was like to be a first year student. I have some very clear memories of what my own first year was like, and many that weren’t so clear. But one of the most vivid memories I have of my five years at university was in September 1995 when I was sitting in a large room, with over a thousand first year students listening to then university president, James Downey, give them their official welcome to the university. A skilled orator, and tremendous educational leader, President Downey saw the university through some tough times, including a period of significant financial retrenchment. In spite of those challenges, or even perhaps because of them, he always seemed to be connected to students, and this humid day in early September when he took the time to speak to new students was evidence of the fact that he never lost sight of the core purpose of his role as university president. Part of why that day still stands out for me is because of the message he conveyed to those students, who were undoubtedly nervous, anxious, afraid, excited about the journey that awaited them. At the heart of his message was the idea that one of the most intimidating, yet important steps one can take towards facing fears, and ultimately succeeding (in this case, at a university education) was to show up. Show up to class. Show up to sporting events. Show up to theatre productions. Whatever the university experience offered, all one had to do was show up, and the rest would come naturally. This made sense to me then – it makes even more sense to me now. Why? Because when people have recently been asking me what I’ve done to make such progress on my health, or what gimmick I used to lose this amount of weight, they’re generally quite surprised to hear my very frank, straightforward, and uncomplicated answer:

I showed up.

For so many years of my life, I did show up. Not for myself, but for others. I’ve always been a very generous person – my time, my support, my attention – and have had no qualms about offering more to others than I ever dared to offer myself. To an extent, that’s what I was taught growing up – that giving is more important than receiving; that the good we put out into the world would come back to us in return. However over time, giving so much of myself, in my work and in my personal life, wasn’t generating the return on investment for which I had hoped and prayed. I used to think that if I was good to others, then some universal power (however he or she is defined) would return the favour by some day magically bestowing unto me the gift of health and happiness. In spite of that, or perhaps because of this na├»ve hope in the possibility of the unknown, I would wake up every morning, take a look in the mirror, and be disappointed -- not only by the fact that I didn’t have a Freaky-Friday moment and all of a sudden wake up in the body I always wanted, but most significantly by the fact that my own reflection continued to be a source of absolute pain and sadness. As I mentioned in my post entitled ‘Proud’ , looking at my own reflection (in mirrors, windows, or anything shiny) has been so very difficult. And it was only in a moment at the gym when I decided to be brave, focus my eyes and learn to acknowledge the reflection that stood before me. In fact, every morning, I now look in the mirror, smile and even let out a bit of a laugh at how much I am enjoying those moments when I actually like the person I see looking back at me. But it took me over 20 years to get to this place.

So how does learning to look in the mirror relate to this idea of ‘showing up’? Well, I guess that in order to make the changes I’ve made thus far, I’ve had to show up for myself in every aspect of my life. ‘Showing up’ not only means actually physically showing up to the gym, to do my workouts, etc., but it also means ‘showing up’ emotionally to do the work that I’ve needed to do. I’ve had to, in some ways, learn to be a bit selfish, and put the need of others aside so that I can focus on (show up for) myself. I've had to face my fears, confront my demons, and take them on, staring them straight in the eyes, with the confidence and strength i knowing that this time, I'm going to kick their ass. And this sometimes meant staring them down through my own reflection.

This was a tough lesson to learn. Spending so much time focused on me made me feel a little bit guilty about the ways that I’ve been neglecting other people and responsibilities in my life. But I continue to assure myself that in order to be fully present for my friends, family, etc. I have to now be fully present for myself during this critical time in my life. And sometimes that means saying ‘no’ to doing things I would otherwise do. It means spending my Friday night at the gym instead of being out with friends. It means giving up a few things that I wasn’t sure I wanted to, but eventually knowing that in order to stop giving up on myself, I had to give up other things in my life. Again, this has not been easy. I realize that I'm making many sacrifices to get to my highest of higs. But I also acknowledge how much of myself I've sacrificed to get to my lowest of lows. Getting healthy and losing weight has become a bit of a full time job. It requires a tremendous amount of focus – not because it’s incredibly complicated, but for me, because I used to spend so much time and energy focusing on what I never liked about myself, that I need to expend as much (if not more) energy on learning to like myself. And contrary to what some people might say is the path to redemption on this weight loss journey, I found that learning to love my former self was not an option. I couldn’t learn to love the morbidly obese man who stared back at me in the mirror each and every day. I couldn’t accept that my reflection was that of someone who was completely fine with himself. I simply could not accept the idea that the hurt and pain that I experienced each day when looking in the mirror, was not a result of the fact that I was truly unhappy, but instead the result of mainstream (read: thin and beautiful) society rejecting the fact that I moved through the world differently. And by ‘differently’ I mean in a larger body, weighed down not just by fat, but by sadness and hurt. I couldn’t accept that once I learned to love the ‘fat me’, that I would have the epiphany I prayed for and all of a sudden ‘be the change’ I wanted to see in myself (to adapt a line from Mahatma Ghandi).

At the same time, I could no longer accept the unhappiness – the shame that came from knowing that each time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror or in the window, that I winced not necessarily because of what I saw, but because it hurt to see what I saw. But learning to like my own reflection, to be happier with myself, was all about showing up. It was about making the VERY conscious choice to allow myself to be my best possible self in whatever way possible. And it’s a choice I have to make each and every day. I know that is sounds like that guy on Saturday Night Live who looked at himself and said ‘I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me’, but at the end of the day taking a moment to look at my reflection -- being present with myself in the mirror – and notice how my jaw line is thinner, how my chin is more defined, and how my smile grows more each and every day, is all about showing up.

And on tough days when I don’t feel like going to the gym, because I don’t really have the energy or the desire, I remind myself of what President Downey said in 1994. The hardest part is showing up. It’s hard because going to the gym is sometimes still scary. Doing my weekly assessment with Sebastien is sometimes still difficult. But it truly gets easier with time, because showing up is without a doubt the most difficult part. That’s what I’ve learned. It gets easier because each and every day, I keep showing up.

Show up in your life. Show up in your own way. Just show up.

Kia kaha.
Stay strong.


  1. Way to go McGrath!!! It's never too late buddy. I absolutely love your posts and the effort you're putting in to improving your life and that of others. Keep up the great rock!

  2. Wow - I can't believe you remember that Downey speech. I remember it too! I remember thinking "yeah - just show up! to everything. Get involved. Do it all. Meet everyone..." good advice. and led to a whole bunch of friends I'll always have and a whole lot of fun (maybe too much fun...) keep up the great work!

  3. I love it Chris! An extremely powerful and important message for sure - way to deliver and show up!!!

  4. I love it Chris - you're so right about showing up, well written. Thanks for the inspiration - this applies to so many different things in life.

  5. I came across your post after a friend of yours who I follow on twitter linked to your blog and I have to say, what a great message! It was exactly what I needed to hear today, and reminded me to show up and let the rest go. I love how you talked about showing up for yourself, and I agree that it can be so easy not to do that, especially when we've always been told to give, give, give. I'm so glad I stumbled on to this today! Good luck on your journey!