Monday, August 27, 2012

Gym Etiquette and the Kingdom

I spend most of my time in two places--the church and the gym--and there's a lot of overlap between them in my life.  Both are integral components of my rule of life; both are sacred spaces that allow me to stay healthy and grounded; and both are places of great discipline and commitment.  I often work out pastoral problems or sermon ideas when I'm lifting or running, and there's more than just a passing resemblance between lunges and genuflections.  More importantly, each milieu has its code of conduct, its rules for proper behavior that have been formed by the consensus of the assembled community.  When these rules are transgressed, the community reacts negatively, and often chastises the naughty party for their misstep.  So, I want to kvetch on a subject that's rarely addressed these days: etiquette.

Growing up a scrawny, rather unathletic kid, I became attracted to the gym because of its focus on personal empowerment and commitment to a disciplined way of living.  No doubt I gravitated to the church in part for the same reasons.  Over the twenty-three years I've been working out, I have become initiated through trial-and-error into gym etiquette.  Unfortunately, gym neophytes aren't usually presented with a list of "dos" and "don'ts," and so they often inadvertently violate gym culture taboos.  Although I try to be patient, I have to admit that I too have my pet peeves. The following list may sound a bit harsh, fussy, or uppity, but please just bear with me.  There is a theological point to all this nagging.  So, here are my Ten Commandments-style "Thou shalt nots,":
  1. Thou shalt not stand right in front of me in the mirror after I've already started lifting.  I'm short, so I can't see over you to check my form.  Besides I can't move huge pieces of equipment to accommodate where you want to stand.
  2. Thou shalt not monopolize the same piece of equipment for a half hour or longer.  I agree that the Smith machine and the pec deck are awesome, but there are others who want to use them, too.
  3. Thou shalt not monopolize several pieces of equipment at the same time.  I know you think you're doing a "circuit," but actually you're just preventing the rest of us from getting through our workouts.
  4. Mainly for the guys:  Thou shalt not grunt or shout obscenities when lifting heavy.  You may be a man's man, but it's very distracting and unpleasant for other people.
  5. Mainly for the ladies:  Thou shalt not do thy calisthenics and stretching in the free weight area.  I realize that the big mirror in the free weight area might seem like a great place to watch youself do calisthenics, but it's really exasperating when I'm doing 85 lb. dumbbell flies and you're dancing around me while I'm trying to lift the equivalent of a person over my face.
  6. Thou shalt not leave the weights on the machine or lying about.  Put them back where you found them.  You're mother isn't here to clean up after you, and dude, wipe your sweat off the equipment.  Gross!
  7. Thou shalt not sit on a piece of equipment doing light reading, talking on your cell phone, or having an extensive conversation with someone else, and then get angry with me, when I ask if you're still using the equipment.  This isn't a library or Starbucks.
  8. Thou shalt not talk loudly on thy cell phone.  Not only is it distracting, but I'm not really interested in being included in your fight with your girlfriend, your conference call for work, or your plans for Friday night.
  9. Thou shalt not invade my privacy while working out.  I know some people use the gym as a place to socialize, which is fine, but I'm actually here to work and to have some me-time, so trying to engage me in a full conversation when I'm gasping for breath on the elliptical is kind of annoying.  Let's talk afterwards or go out for coffee.
  10. Thou shalt not invade my personal space.  Gyms can get really crowded, especially at peak times, so please don't hover over me, take up too much room, work out a mere inches from my bench, or throw weights down by my feet.
If this litany of offenses sounds like a gym rat's intolerant rant, I apologize.  My tone may be a bit snarky, but that's because these behaviors are considered rude by most seasoned gym-goers.  Many people who commit these heinous crimes, however, just aren't aware that they are breaches of gym etiquette.  One needs to be initiated into a culture in order to understand which behaviors are considered polite and which are considered discourteous.  I, too, made my own missteps and was corrected, sometimes gently and sometimes not.  In the postmodern world, so much emphasis is placed on individual choice and needs that there is often insufficient attention payed to courtesy, politeness, and consideration of others.  I am often shocked by the lack of common courtesy I witness in public places like gyms, restaurants, shops, and highways.  The truth is we've all gotten a bit boorish, and it would be no bad thing if we got a refresher from Miss Manners on how to be more respectful of each other.  We've all learned NOT TO USE ALL CAPS in our e-mails, since it signifies shouting in cyberspace, so we can certainly learn to be more civil to each other at the gym and other places, too.

This is where I think the Church can be of some help.  Wherever else people may slack off on courtesy, they still tend to be on their best behavior in church.  We don't usually have to worry about folks shoving each other out of the way to get to the coffee, shouting obscenities down the nave, texting or talking on their cell phones during the sermon, or discarding their garbage casually on the floor.  I suspect this good behavior is driven less by fear of eternal damnation than by a shared understanding that there is a code of conduct everyone is expected to observe when they walk through the doors.  Church is still a place where etiquette reigns.  As a space that is considered sacred, we are expected to observe a higher standard of behavior than we do out in the rest of the world.  Yet this is theologically misguided.  To distinguish between so-called "sacred" space and "secular" space is to claim that parts of God's creation are less holy than others, less worthy of good behavior.  So, my challenge to gym-goers is to practice everywhere the same degree of courtesy and politeness as we do in church.  And, of course, it is not restricted to gyms, but to workplaces, grocery stores, and rush-hour traffic.  The Kingdom of God with its harmony, love, and good will cannot appear if we only practice Christian charity in church.  It must extend to all the places where we live, and move, and have our being.  Etiquette still matters.  And if you're still unclear, my copies of Emily Post and Martha Stewart are sitting on the top shelf in my office next to the Bible.  Feel free to help yourself.


  1. Hi Father, this post resonated with me completely! I am currently a Deacon looking to be ordained Priest this December (New Zealand calendar) and being a committed gym goer I thought your top ten list was brilliant. There is a real connection about 'doing things right' in church as well as the gym not as a way of opposing ones opinion on others but in order that worship may be seamless so that the object (worshipping God or working out) may be done with no distraction nor hindrance, keep up the good work. Blessings, Rev Jordan.

  2. I too have noticed that people never seem to forget to turn off their cell ringers in Church. I have attended the same church for about 6 years now and can only think of 1 instance when someone's cell phone went off during mass. I wish they had the same consideration in movie theaters and the public library where I work; where some patrons have no consideration for others and will yak on their phones at the normal voice level until we ask them to please use it in the lobby.
    My partner is Roman Catholic and comes with me on occasion to my Anglo-Catholic (Episcopal) church. I get annoyed because sometimes during Mass he will sit and text on his droid. The only (valid) excuse I can give for him is that he works in veterans' services and often has to deal with vets who are in crisis or suicidal. And this can happens at any hour of the day or night.

  3. The influence of the church, the city of God, should be civilizing. The wearing of robes by those in sanctuaries and chancels dates from ancient times, when that is the way literate and civilized people dressed. They continued to dress that way when they ventured forth to form missions in areas surrounded by barbarism.

    Those conditions aren't entirely a thing of the past. Sometimes a church is one of few institutions remaining in a badly deteriorated city neighborhood. When a college friend and I visited Chicago in the late 1960s and hoped to see the Church of the Ascension on a weekday, we rang the doorbell at the parish house door, and the secretary came to answer it with a knife in her hand. She was hospitable and did welcome us at last to visit the church, but conditions required her to be very cautious.

    Around 1990, a famous youth leader in Harlem, in a talk at a public university, expressed his gratitude to the churches in Harlem. It was there, he said, that many children learned all the good manners that they might know. Without this influence, his job would be even more difficult than it was.

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