The Myth of Mario

What Super Mario Bros. taught me about losing weight

Thirteen years ago today, I decided to drink eight glasses of water everyday for a week. That choice for a healthier life spiraled into another, then thousands more. It led to losing 150 pounds that I’ve kept off for more than a decade. In all that time, I’ve had little to say in terms of advice. This is my first foray. I share not to declare how it is or will be, but rather to convey what it’s like for me and, perhaps, show a few others they aren’t alone.

Losing weight is a lot like playing Super Mario Bros. When you start, you have little ability and lots of obstacles. Running and jumping at the same time takes a level of attention that eventually seems effortless.

Small choices to drink more water, eat healthy meals that are also enjoyable, and take a walk on a pretty day are the easy-to-defeat Goomba mushrooms. Annoying Koopa turtles that are harder to maneuver around and never seem to go away entirely are things like finding the motivation to exercise or not eating when bored or upset.

Baked goods in office staff rooms, fake-flavored cheese-y things, and pints of Ben & Jerry’s are those maniacal Hammer Brothers and asshole cloud-bombing Lakitus. Your only defense is to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

And then there’s your goal weight: Princess Toadstool. Surrounded by heart-racing dungeon music and guarded by the brawny, bad guy Bowser. It takes skill, patience, and luck to reach her, but it can be done.

I once weighed over 300 pounds. I persisted after slip-ups, bottomless pits, and spiny turtle shells. I conquered Goombas, Koopas, and Bowser himself. I stood there with Princess Toadstool. Game over.

But instead of the credits rolling, I was plunked right down into the next level.

All the enemies and obstacles were still there — the landscape full of tricky bits. I knew what to do, I was good at it. I ran and jumped from pipes and platforms, timing it just right to land on a dime. I hopped from one Koopa to the next, offing them like turtle shell dominos. But after a while, there was no flag pole, no boss, no princess.

Maintaining weight loss is a different game. It has no end.

Mario is a sort of Sisyphus — the figure in Greek mythology condemned to push a heavy boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down. Forever.

While Sisyphus’s fate was bleaker and less varied than Mario’s (or mine), there are similarities. It still takes hourly effort to make the right choices. I’m not the “normal” person I expected to be when I rescued Princess Toadstool a decade ago. I still experience setbacks. I’ve come so far, yet feel in some ways as challenged as I did in the beginning.

This felt entirely frustrating and unfair until I discovered Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus on an episode of OnBeing. Camus argues that we must imagine Sisyphus happy to push the rock up the mountain.

At first this seems preposterous. Sisyphus’s fate seems like hell. It seems implausible that never reaching a goal, and experiencing repeated setbacks on top of that, could ever result in happiness.

Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?

But it’s not the rock that’s torture, or the rolling back down. The torture is hoping to be done with a task that will never be done. Maybe it’s still hard for me to make healthy choices because it will always be hard. Maybe I’m exactly where I need to be.

Camus helped me realize that the game cannot be won, it can only be played.

And what’s more, it’s a pretty freaking incredible game to be playing. Of all the rocks that exist in the world, I’ll push this one thank you. One that makes me feel awesome? Okay. And wear fun clothes? You bet. And enjoy incredible food and be strong and never worry about stairs or chairs or airplane companions? Yes, please, to all of that, yes.

Some people have no rock. My rock is a gift. One might even say a joy, something that could clearly, even inevitably, make me happy.

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I now picture Sisyphus happily pushing the rock and Mario content to play princess-less. I embrace the distractions in my pantry, the reflection of my waistline in the mirror each morning, and being torn, forever, by them.

It means my fate belongs to me.

It’s the obstacles, not the princess. It’s the rock, not the mountain. It’s the choice, not the number on the scale, that I need to be happy. The struggle is the prize.

What an unexpected relief to know there’s no end to that.


Thank you to Jess, Bill, Heather, Chris, Frances, Andrea, and Mo for your eyeballs before I shared this with the world.