Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life

JERZY GREGOREK emigrated from Poland to the United States as a political refugee with his wife, Aniela, in 1986. He subsequently won four World Weightlifting Championships and established one world record. In 2000, Jerzy and Aniela founded UCLA’s weightlifting team. As co-creator of the Happy Body program, Jerzy has mentored people for more than 30 years. In 1998, Jerzy earned an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poems and translations have appeared in numerous publications, including The American Poetry Review. His poem “Family Tree” was the winner of Amelia magazine’s Charles William Duke Long Poem Award in 1998.

What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
After I read this question, I raised my head and looked at the hundreds of books in my study, then I walked to my living room and looked at more books there, and then I looked at the piles in my bedroom, the kitchen, my gym, and my meditation room. I had a strong feeling that almost all of them contributed to the person I have become.

One book I’ve returned to throughout my life, so much so that it’s now filled with underlining and notes, is The Doctor and the Soul by Viktor E. Frankl. A psychiatrist who emerged alive after six years in a concentration camp, Frankl’s work is based on our search for meaning in life as a very personal task. This book helped me embrace hard choices and keep imagining a better future.

The Tao of Power by Lao Tzu [a translation of the Tao Te Ching by R. L. Wing] helped me see the relationship between “enough,” health, and wealth. It sent me on a 30-year journey to find enough food, exercise, and rest; to learn how to live between too much and too little to create a youthful and happier existence.

And from Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, I learned self-mastery: to constantly improve myself so I would be ready for any possible disaster. I also learned that when disaster happens, it means that something is being asked of me. I need to improve. The whole scenario is so clear while aging. After 35 years old, no matter what we do, we’ll get worse. Deterioration is automatic in the process of aging, and the result is that we get depressed. But if we live like a stoic, it does not affect us in a negative way. A stoic is always ready for any disaster and ready to embrace it, to turn it into opportunity. My wife used to ask me, “Why are you happy when something bad happens?” I am not happy, I am just not unhappy. I focus on removing what is wrong. One day my friend did something unethical, so I stopped being friends with him, but Aniela was curious why I was not more upset. I replied that I was happy because I did not have to be associated with him anymore. Can you imagine if it had happened five years later when I felt even closer to him?

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
When I was 19 years old, I had just become a fireman and was racing for the first time to a fire that had broken out in an apartment. As our fire engine raced through the city with the lights spinning and the siren blaring, I felt an overwhelming feeling of goodness. For the first time, I felt somebody needed me, and I really liked it. Since that time, I’ve kept educating myself and have tried to keep becoming an even better man so I can again help people in need and feel that goodness.

Five years ago, I decided to eliminate my reactive behavior to irritations, but at first none of my tricks worked. I placed philosophical and inspirational quotes on my iPhone wallpaper or wrote in my journal, but the proverbs always lost their effectiveness over time. Then, one day, I told one of my clients who blamed her husband for everything to take 100 percent responsibility for her part in their interactions. “This way,” I said, “you will be free of trying to control him, and you will be able to find constructive solutions in your relationship.”

When she left, I realized that the same advice could help me as well. Taking 100 percent personal responsibility would help me to stop blaming or complaining and achieve a sense of flow. It would also give me the clarity in any conversation to locate the right words to help a person to accept a hard choice.

On March 8, 2017, I bought a bracelet on Amazon for $19.95 with the first letters of each word of a sentence: IARFCDP. Only I know what the letters mean, but I’ll share them with you now. They are the key to my personal proverb, a line that brings awareness and helps me see through my own emotional storms. It means: I Am Responsible For Calming Down People. Sometimes it helps me to teach what I need to learn myself.

I never take it off. It reminds me many times a day what the letters stand for and lets me feel its goodness. Sometimes while reacting to an irritation, I notice the bracelet and stop myself before I get to the point where I’ll be sorry. Then, I experience glimpses of flow.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I became an alcoholic at the age of 15, and a bad one. After six months of drinking with friends, I was expelled from school. Over the next three years, I would have severe blackouts where I wouldn’t remember what had happened for the previous two or three days. One day a friend, Mirek, mentioned that his dad had thrown all of his weightlifting equipment out of his house. “You can store it at my place,” I offered casually, not expecting him to follow through. The next day, he showed up with his weights and convinced me to do a short workout with him before going out for a beer. He was kind and persistent, and I noticed that he had a sense of contentment that I envied. After six months, I was spending most of my time with Mirek and his crowd of weightlifters and little time with my old friends, the town drunks. A year later, I was sober and felt reborn.

This dramatic early failure helped me in a few ways. It showed me how, with consistent effort, someone can turn their life completely around in the space of a year. I realized firsthand how important mentoring is in this process of deep change; it’s why mentoring is so important in our work today. It also gave me insight into the mind of an alcoholic, or any addict. Today I can drink moderately without tipping into the reckless fatalism of addiction. Without having been there, though, I doubt I could find the right words at the right time for the alcoholics who need me to understand them.

If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”

Nothing truly meaningful or lasting has ever been created in a short period of time. If you learn the story behind any great success, you realize how many years went by and how many hard choices were made to achieve it. Reaching for more is not only an act of ambition, it also comes from passion and love. Nothing is achieved because of easy choices. I believe that people can endure any hardship if it is sensible and constructive. Hard choices means never retiring, because the brain has to be engaged in finding new solutions in the moment, not just remembering old formulas. Hard choices make us wiser, smarter, stronger, and wealthier, and easy choices reverse our progress, focusing our energies on comfort or entertainment. In every difficult moment ask yourself, “What is a hard choice and what is an easy choice?” and you will know instantly what is right.

What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
After I recovered from my alcoholism, I realized that I’d missed out on my education, and I was determined to make up for lost time. I started studying 16 hours a day, seven days a week, hoping to pursue a medical career. University tuition was beyond the budget of my family, however, so I eventually entered the fire protection engineering academy. Even before this, I was studying English. Despite its unpopularity in Poland at the time, I was determined to become fluent. Little did I know that in a few years’ time, I would be forced to flee Poland to save my life, eventually arriving in the U.S. as a political refugee.

Ever since those teenage years, when I discovered the power of learning and decided to educate myself, knowing more has been my path to personal power and happiness. When Aniela and I were refugees in Europe, books were like clothes. We couldn’t be without them. We’ve never regretted investing in our education. When we were dissatisfied with a hired writer’s work on the first draft of The Happy Body, we decided to pursue master’s degrees in creative writing so we could better communicate our own stories and ideas. Our work is a synthesis of the thousands of books we have read over the years, and we will never stop learning. To us, books are what make us human.

What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

Aniela and I have been married for 38 years, and we still have lots to talk about. We also have a tradition. At noon, we stop working and prepare ourselves for our date. After taking showers and dressing in our favorite clothes, we head to our favorite local restaurant. As soon as we walk in, the entire staff welcomes us with a smile and we head to our favorite table, guided by the chatting host. He offers a menu and a bottle of sparking water while Aniela reads the menu. She chooses a different lunch each time, but I stay with the same appetizer (French fries) and a double vodka for my entrée with a plate of veggies on the side. I love our dates. Nothing is better than sitting with your wife after 42 years of being together and still enjoying the moment.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
When I was 55, I went to Poland and learned that my mother’s five brothers died because of prostate cancer, each when they were close to 55 years old. As I stood looking at the grave of one of them, I realized I was 55 myself. When I returned to the States, I immediately visited my doctor, who informed me that my prostate was large and had nodules. She tested my PSA, and after seeing the result of 9.5, she sent me to the urologist. He was very fast and forceful with his recommendation: biopsy and possible removal. “Wait, wait,” I said. “Let me think about it.” The doctor urged me to make a quick decision, but I wanted to do some research first. The whole next week, I studied the literature about my condition and decided to change my diet, incorporating many more vegetables, before taking drastic medical action. The result? After six months my PSA was down to 5, and after another six months it reached 1. Another half a year later it hit 0.1, and it has been like this every year since.

It’s a cliché that everyone hates to eat their vegetables, but during the last five years, I developed many creative ways to prepare them that are tasty. Now it’s easy to eat a lot of them. Every day, I eat a bowl of veggie soup, drink veggie juice, and eat pâté made out of the post-juicing pulp mixed with garlic, lemon juice, kale, spinach, and avocado. I serve it on bananas and other fruits so it looks like sushi. But my favorite concoction, which I created three years ago, is a medley of cabbage, onion, avocado, and pear. It’s incredibly delicious, extremely healthy, and fast to prepare. This dish also gave me a deep insight about eating: there was no way to make food better than this. I felt pride and a surge of energy, realizing that I actually ate the best in the world. Nobody could eat better than I, but only as good as I. Then, one day, I was sitting with a friend, discussing longevity and health. For the first time, I could not feel that deep fear of death inside me—I had lost it. I turned to him and I said, “I feel I will be living a long time,” and then I told him my story of fear. He smiled and said, “I hope it’s contagious.”

What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”?
When I started studying fire protection engineering, a professor gave a welcome speech and said something like this: “Up to today, you studied hard and repeated what the world told you. Our purpose in the next four years is to teach you how to think for yourself. If we succeed, you will create something this world has never seen before, but if we do not, you will just be stuck copying others and repeating. Take my words seriously, study hard, but also open your imagination. One day you will be designing a new world, and I hope it will be better than the one we live in.”

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“You have to do endurance cardio.” In the ’90s, I coached an Olympic weightlifting team at Gold’s Gym in Venice. There was a trainer there who asked to join the team. When I asked why he would take on such a big challenge, he said that he was impressed by what we could do and the tremendous skill of the team members. He wanted to learn our techniques so he could later use them in his coaching. I agreed, and he joined the team, following the program and attending all our practices. One day he cornered me and said, “I understand what you do and I think it is very valuable, but I train marathon runners and triathletes and I think that cardio is important. I also trained firemen in New York, and sometimes they have to run up 40 flights of stairs, so they needed cardio training.” I told him that I would ask him one question. After that, if he still thought that cardio was important, then I would include it in the training. But if not, we would never discuss it again. He agreed, so I asked him, “If I put firefighting gear on the winner of a marathon and the winner of an Olympic sprint and sent them to the 40th floor, who would be faster?” He stared at me for more than a minute without saying anything. Then I said, “Now you know how you slowed down firemen in New York by training them for endurance and not power.” He smiled, and we returned to the training.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?

I have finally learned to say no to the fatalist within me. If the fatalist wins, we get worse and our quality of life declines. It was my clients who made me aware of a dialogue that we all have running inside our minds between the fatalist and its opposite, the master. No matter what I said or did to inspire them to rise above the situations that hobbled them, they still failed. My clients kept watching themselves doing what they knew was wrong, yet they did not have the power to stop. After much meditation on this problem I realized that I had a fatalist too, and that the dialogue between the fatalist and the master is automatic and running constantly in my head. The only difference is that my fatalist is no longer strong enough to win. And the margin that leads to victory is small—it can be just 49 percent fatalist versus 51 percent master. By spending more than a year writing three books of dialogues between the master and fatalist, I observed that a 1 percent tipping point often comes through a bit of trickery on the part of the master. By exploring the dynamic over time I’ve been able to empower the master within, and I can trap the fatalist in new ways, creating a larger margin of victory—5 or even 10 percent—which means failing about once a week as opposed to a few times a day.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

Over the last half of my life, I’ve read hundreds of poetry books. Whenever I read a poem that I loved or felt a deep connection to, I added it to a collection I titled “200 Antidepressant Poems.” Now, whenever I feel overwhelmed or feel I did something wrong, I go to the meditation room, randomly open my manuscript, then read a poem loudly. Usually two poems are enough to make me feel better and restore love in my heart. Here are my 11 favorite poems to read when I am feeling depressed (11 is the master power number):

  1. “The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop
  2. “Leaving One” by Ralph Angel
  3. “A Cat in an Empty Apartment” by Wisława Szymborska
  4. “Apples” by Deborah Digges
  5. “Michiko Nogami (1946–1982)” by Jack Gilbert
  6. “Eating Alone” by Li-Young Lee
  7. “The Potter” by Peter Levitt
  8. “Black Dog, Red Dog” by Stephen Dobyns
  9. “The Word” by Mark Cox
  10. “Death” by Maurycy Szymel
  11. “This” by Czeslaw Milosz

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