Depression, Kenneth Burke, The Fitness Industry, and the Incredible Hulk

By Dr. Daniel Durbin | 3/4/13 |

As my eyes blinked awake this morning, I again saw the top of his head as it peeked over the edge of my bed.  His dark and deep-set eyes stared up at me in innocence as his bony hand reached up and landed on my left arm.  Behind his eyes, as if thought rather than said, I could hear the words I hear every morning.

            “There is no one out there, there is nothing out there, worth getting out of bed for.”

            Gently, but firmly, his hand held my arm to the bed.  His thoughts gave me a peculiar comfort, a desire to stay in bed, a desire to not move.

            He has been there every morning in my memory, greeting me at my moment of waking.  He’s my little friend.  He’s depression.

            Depression is a disease just as surely as cancer.  Until you have sat on a couch for days at a time, unable to rise because your chest and stomach have been pressed so hard that they are lost somewhere between the couch and the floor, your arms limp and useless at your side, your eyes staring vacantly, you don’t know the devastation this disease can wreck on a human being.  When the dark night rises, it will crush you.

            How, then, do we fight depression?  If it is truly a disease, what is its cure?

There is no single cure, no panacea for this disease.  Each battle with depression is personal.  In fact, this disease has no real or final cure.

            This is the one instance in which the old sports cliché does fit.  You can’t stop depression, you can only contain it.  It remains with you, even in the best of times.

            So, how did I contain my depression this morning?  I did what I do most mornings.  Against every fiber of my being that wanted to stay in bed, against every fiber of my being that wanted to remain in the restroom roaming the internet through my iPhone, against every fiber of my being that told me to stay on the couch and listen to the birds that I could not hear singing outside, I finally threw on my shoes, grabbed my weights and started pumping iron.

            Twenty minutes of weight training and a two mile run got my little friend to back off.  He never left.  He’s at my elbow now.  But, he backed off.

            Physical stress has always helped me keep depression at bay.  Ironically, physical activity is the one thing depression makes most difficult for me, crippling me before I can begin---perhaps, like an infection, the disease fights hardest the anti-body that can control it. 

In any case, I have found that physical activity and physical fitness are the most effective tools for me.  They are also quite difficult to maintain, especially in a Burger King culture.

During the bulk of my adult life, I have fought weight gain (like about 98% of the U.S.).  I find that, when I am comfortable and relatively happy, I put on weight.  When I’m depressed, I pack on pounds.  When I deal with stress and overwork, the inches around my waist creep higher and higher.

The fitness industry has fed on people like me since its inception in the late nineteenth century with Eugen Sandow, Bernarr McFadden, and British notions of “muscular Christianity.”  With amazing consistency, the industry has promised people like me a body like Earle Liederman or Charles Atlas or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tony Little (if that’s really the body you want).  It has promised I could get that body with minimal effort and the purchase of a few pieces of plastic or springs or variously shaped weights.

Like the fashion industry, each new season, the fitness industry has offered me the latest, fastest, easiest, most stress free way to lose weight and build muscle.  So, when the latest plastic cross-country ski machine inevitably fails to turn me into Sylvester Stallone ca. “Rocky III,” there will always be a new vibrating dumbbell that targets that hard-to-get-at-gut and burns the fat off like a sizzling outdoor grill.

Kenneth Burke understood the peculiar appeal of the fitness literature that sold this limitless stream of gadgets.  In his essay “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Burke wrote that the great allure of inspirational literature (a genre that surely includes fitness literature) is it fills a need, a need for consolation in a confusing world.

In a confusing world in which the economy, education, politics, war, and, often, even our own jobs are out of our control, inspirational literature gives us consolation.  In particular, fitness literature, with its perpetually inspirational frame giving us the vision of the body we will achieve in six easy steps, gives us control over the one thing in the world we should control, the one thing that so often seems frustratingly out of our control, our bodies.

But, this control is a fraud.  As Burke stated emphatically, “The reading of a book on the attaining of success is itself the symbolic attaining of that success.  That is, when I read the fitness literature, look at the pictures of the promised Atlas body, spend money for the equipment, I gain symbolic identification with Atlas.  Charles Atlas’s body symbolically becomes mine.  I become the “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man” by reading and putting into action the literature (that is, by buying the product).  That identification offers momentary consolation.  But, it is only momentary.

Sadly, my true body remains Daniel Durbin’s body (albeit, I can run three miles at the drop of a hat---so, there are worse bodies to have).  Which leaves only the question of how, between the depression, the symbolic but false success of the fitness literature, and my own tendencies toward weight gain, I strike and maintain some sort of physical and mental balance.

Again, I do not claim to have answers for anyone else.  But, in my own life, this is what I’ve found.

Serious weight lifting and running are hard and painful activities.  To steal another Burkean notion, if you really want to lose weight and be fit, you have to be willing to symbolically kill the person who used to walk in your body.  You have to be willing to beat that person up and chance injuring that person in order to create a new person.  You have to be willing to hurt that person.  And that takes some anger.

The Durbins are an odd group.  Genetically predisposed to depression, we bury another part of our nature and bury it deep.  Like most people, we have a deep-seated anger that we spend most of our lives fighting to keep from loosing.  Because, if that anger gets out, really bad things happen.

But, anger can have its benefits.  Focused anger can motivate us to kick depression in the teeth and stress and strain our bodies for the greater good.  Keeping it focused and under control is the key.  Anger can be a powerful ally.  Rage destroys.

This, of course, is a lesson I learned from our friend the Incredible Hulk in last summer’s blockbuster popcorn-fest, “The Avengers” (a movie I saw on an airplane to Paris, France---another story for another day).  How do I balance health and fitness and control (or lack thereof) and confusion?  How do I build the energy to fight off an ever-present depression? And, how do I do all this without falling into a self-destroying rage?

To keep rage and depression, those twin destroyers, at bay, I have to constantly rely on the focus I gain through that other hard emotion.  As Dr. Bruce Banner noted before transforming into the Hulk, “I’m always angry.”

Between the useful moments of focused anger and the focused moments of useful anger, may you find peace.