Last night I finished reading the Kindle edition of The Urban Hermit, Sam MacDonald’s funny memoir of how he lost 160 pounds or so, and in so doing got himself out of a near-catastrophic situation with debt. I’m not going to quote passages here, for this reason only: it’s on my iPad, I’d have to type the passages out, and I’m on DAY FREAKING TEN of an epic, disabling cold and sinus situation, so I’m in a very Squidward mood this morning. I mean, moreso.

Anyway, Sam begins by describing what a wreck he’d made of his life by the time he’d turned the corner toward his late 20s. He was 5’11”, and weighed what he guesses was 375 pounds (he has to estimate, because he never stepped onto a scale until he had dropped a huge chunk of that). Wore a size 56 coat, if that gives you a clue. He was also massively in debt, with creditors gnawing his ankles. One day, he realized that Something Had To Change. The lifestyle he enjoyed of heavy drinking, partying, and slacking in Baltimore, where he lived, had to end. He decided that “the Fat Bastard” he had become had to die.

Sam went on an extremely ascetic, even hard-core monastic, diet. He did it less to lose weight than to save money and pay off his creditors, it seems. He stayed out of the bar. He ate lentils and canned tuna only (because they were cheap). Because he was bored, he started walking. A lot. And he stuck to this strategy in the face of every temptation, only falling off the wagon on one memorable occasion.

It worked. The weight dropped off of him, and he became fit for the first time since high school. In time, he paid off all his debt. In the wrenching, painful process of doing all this, Sam grew up and developed self-control. (By the way, the research psychologist Roy Baumeister, in his new book (with John Tierney) Willpower, explains why having self-control — which can be learned — is a key to success and flourishing.)

Without question Sam’s strategy was extreme, and most of us who struggle with our weight wouldn’t seek to follow it precisely. Nevertheless, I found The Urban Hermit to be so encouraging because it shows, in a dramatic way, that the seemingly impossible can be done if you put your mind to it and don’t give up. I can’t imagine being as severely overweight or as in debt as Sam was, but when I think about my own oversized gut, or credit card balance, in light of Sam’s experience, it’s hard to see myself as a passive victim of circumstance. In Sam’s book, I see a man who was buried under a mountain of the fruit of his own self-indulgence, but who realized that he was not a prisoner of his bad choices, that he had agency, and was not doomed to live like this forever. There is not one trace of self-pity in this book, nor does Sam downplay how difficult the task was. He says, matter of factly, that he had lots of fun on the way to becoming obese and flat broke, but it was time to pay down those debts, literal and metaphorical.

As many readers will know, Sam usually participates in combox threads here whenever we talk about weight loss. It’s strange and interesting to me how so many readers react to his message with scorn and anger. True, some people really do have medical issues that keep them from losing weight. But most people? If that were true, we wouldn’t have seen such a rapid and dramatic increase in obesity rates in our country. And if it were the case that the poor can only afford to eat high-calorie crap food, how is it that Sam, who was living in real poverty, managed to lose all that weight? He ate food that gave him protein, but was not pleasant. And he stopped drinking. (Had he gone on welfare, he could have afforded a healthier, tastier diet, but that was not his plan.)

I find Sam’s story so hopeful, a parable of triumph over great adversity — the kind of adversity that tens of millions of Americans find themselves in, to a certain extent — through the power of the will, but nobody wants to hear it. Strange.

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