“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”

Khalil Gibran, Lebanese-American artist and writer, in The Philosophy of Logic

One of my most beloved mentors Mrs. Dutton gave me a copy of The Prophet, Gibran’s most famous work. A cherished gift. I have returned to it so many times over the past eighteen years for comfort, guidance, reflection, and to see a bit of Mrs. Dutton herself at times when I have missed her.

If Gibran is correct, knowledge of the self is a fairly tall order. Will I ever know myself completely? Or are there certain parts of me that remain hidden even to my introspective eyes until a particular situation or experience would call them out? I do wonder.

Can we ever know our characterization fully in advance of the plot points in our narrative?

And once we do know our subtleties and our very atoms, how much do we have the ability to change and hew ourselves the way we would?

For most of my life I have sought access to myself through literature and writing. These are my primary loves and always will be. I often imagine a direct line running from my fingers to my heart/mind. I hardly know what words will come out if I start over-thinking them. I am a decent oral rhetor, but there are those who are far, far more gifted. No, my true self comes out in my writing. When I speak words, they are true, but I am always painfully aware of how much my spoken voice (not the actual sound, but “voice” as in the literary sense of persona and attitude) is like translating my real, written voice into a second oral language. Ironically, I have won speaking competitions in my time. It is always unexpected. I always consider my natural voice, my deepest self, to be the written word. If I exist at all, I exist in a flow of words.

But I also love science, and I find self-knowledge there, as well. I remember a late night conversation with a college friend (who is now a doctor) in the engineering building one night. We must have stayed up until 2 AM talking about biology and his chem class. He described in detail these amazingly mechanical and precise processes as though they were poetry to him. They certainly were poetry to me. When he spoke, I could almost see the precision of our bodies in blazes of color, and there was nothing except to be humble before how intricate an organism we are, how beautiful.

Through history, particularly my favorite field which is the history of ideas and how they change over time, we also have access to the changing concepts of self. Lately I have been reading material and watching lectures that essentially pose the questions, “What makes us human? What makes us modern?”

I’ve loved math, also, though for much of my life I viewed math as just a fun mental game to play for exercise and fun. I appreciated its application to the physics. Saw the beauty of irrational numbers. Felt the sublime when I think of the eternity of Pi.

But I never applied math and numbers to myself, or to my quest for self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Perhaps it was the “minutiae” I most feared. Those most discrete parts of myself. The ones, you know, that are objective and I’d have to own up to.

I wonder if anyone reading has heard of the Quantified Self movement. I never had, until Bill found himself interested in it. We’re not truly part of the movement in any way, though we find the overall idea fascinating. How much can we come to know ourselves through our data, our numbers? What can we do for ourselves when we look at those hard numbers on a routine and continuous basis?

I’ve written a few times about my journey this past year toward a healthier version of myself. I am a calorie counter. I fully subscribe to the science that the energy we put into our bodies must be less than or equal to what we put out if we want to be a healthy weight. 3500 calories = 1 pound. It’s mathematical. There’s no way around it. I, personally, cannot eat “what I feel” or “try to be good” and expect to get anywhere. In fact, when I did that, the only place I got myself over gradual time was to a state of obesity and health decline.

Take a look at this chart. This link takes you to the American Council on Exercise’s “Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart.” Last year at this time, I had a body fat percentage of 33-35%. It fluctuated a bit in all of my readings. “Obese,” per the chart. The cut-off for “average” is 31% for women.

Holy moly.

One year later, with running and watching the mathematics of food, I now have a 17.5-19.0% body fat percentage (over several calculations). Officially in the “athletes” category. I know—what???! I’ve certainly never been considered, nor have considered myself to be, an athlete of any kind. Yeah, I played soccer for awhile (my second most fit time in my life), but it wasn’t like I was heading toward superstardom with that or anything. Or even a college scholarship. Athlete: not me. More like book nerd.

But my body fat percentage is now low enough to be in the athlete category. It blows my mind. All because I followed the numbers and did not give myself an out.

In our house, we talk about the numbers of food, and we have open conversations about making healthy choices and getting proper physical exercise. Our children need to grow up understanding proper portions and how many calories various food items cost to eat. I did not educate myself about this until this past year at age 32. I think it is essential knowledge. Want that slice of pizza? Okay, but we have to be informed that it is close to 300 calories, around 1/6 of what we need for the whole day if we are maintaining. A single slice. 1/6. How about a donut? 195 calories for one, if we’re lucky. Very little food or nutrition for that cost. I’d rather have a whole banana, a TB of almond butter, a cup of almond milk, and tea…or a bowl of groats with a bit of banana and dates and coconut milk for around that cost. Make an informed choice. Don’t be like me and at 32 wonder how you got there, most certainly headed toward diabetes and stress on the heart along with any other number of physical health issues (many of which my husband developed, and then reversed with his lifestyle change and weight loss).

So, some numbers as I celebrate a year this week of being a runner (and slightly over a year of counting calories):

Last year weight: 162.5 pounds

This year weight: 111.6 (although my last weighing this morning was in the 113’s—I have learned this has to do with water and not to let it freak me out. As Bill often says, “It is not linear.”)

Last year body fat percentage: 33-35%

This year body fat percentage: 17.5-19.0%

Last year blood pressure: I didn’t take it when I started—I should have, but the numbers scared me at first—have to be so accountable to them once I know them. 😉

This year blood pressure: 99/63 (today’s midday reading)

Last year: could barely run a whole mile in 12 minutes when I started (again, was wussing out on recording it)

This year:  Yesterday’s 7.5 mile run was finished in 1 hour and 13 minutes, with an average pace of 9:30 a mile. Today’s run (for speed purposes) of 2.5 miles was done in 21: 43 minutes and had an average pace of 8:42 minutes/mile. Not as good as it can be, but I am hungry to keep pushing. Furthest I’ve gone in a single run since last year: 9.5 miles.

Numbers never lie. When I began this journey, I had several days before committing myself when I hemmed and hawed. It would have been easier, it seemed back then, to continue in my nebulous relationship with the minutiae of myself. I was nervous to know my numbers. They would be objective evidence of my progress, or what I feared would be my lack thereof. But then I had an epiphany one morning. I thought, I have given my best effort so many times in so many areas (school, family, career) but I have never given my best effort toward taking care of myself. What could I do if I gave myself my best effort? 

At that moment my mind committed itself without asking me again. And then I had to follow through. It turns out it is far easier to live this way—by the numbers—than it was to live with guilt and anxiety and the song and dance work required to rationalize all of my choices to myself. Part of it is willpower, but a larger part is knowing the numbers are there, waiting for me. Lest that sound ominous, I should revise and say: the numbers hold me accountable in ways beyond which I could hold myself. The numbers don’t stroke my ego. I miss a few days of exercise back in February, those dudes let me know! I love our fitbit system, which syncs our scale data to an online dashboard. We can make meal plans and watch numbers. I’ve only used it in the most basic ways the past year, but I am ready to step it up. It turns out that maintenance has its own set of challenges. That’s why the numbers are so important.

I’ve got some new goals other than loss for the Year 2 of this change. I want to get as close as I can to an 8:00 mile, and I want to hang out at 111.0 to 114.0 pounds. I also want to be able to do a dozen pull-ups in a row and 20-25 push-ups. I just signed up to run the Long Beach half-marathon with my dad this coming October. It’s on a Sunday, which will work out perfectly with Katie’s soccer schedule, and it is a chance to make a memory with my dad—who was my inspiration to begin running in the first place. He ran his first half last October, and this will honor that accomplishment of his. I want to prove something to myself, as well.

Although I have often had a profound appreciation for numbers, never have I had a more personal gratitude. It sounds a little schmaltzy, but I truly think that mathematics has improved the quality of, perhaps even prolonged by many years, my life. We’re not really taught to look at ourselves that way in school, but why not? Why not look at ourselves through even lens possible, to be the best versions of ourselves we can be? We can’t know ourselves only through Hamlet or the Krebs cycle, although these are valuable avenues that give a piece of the puzzle. We are in a modern era of data collection, and the data on ourselves might just be what saves us in the end.

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