Of the seven deadly sins, gluttony is the one with which we are most obsessed. Try going to a bookstore and telling an employee: “I’m looking for something that will help me with my problem of vanity. I suffer from pride and hubris, and I want some guidance on addressing that.” Or say you want to work on your envy, or sloth. A resourceful bookstore employee might be able point you to a few titles. If you say you want help with your lust, or your greed, you’ll mostly find titles giving advice on how to be more successful in gratifying these desires rather than in mitigating their control over your life. Tell the clerk you have an issue with anger, and you’ll have somewhat better luck -- there are several books about anger management. But if you say your problem is gluttony, then you have hit the mother lode. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of title upon title of diet and weight-loss books to help you not groan under the weight of yourself.

While we don’t often use the word “gluttony” these days, we are a nation and a culture deeply obsessed with overeating and with body image. The Center for Disease Control says that in 1962, 13 percent of the US was obese. By 2010, 35.7 percent of US adults qualify as “obese.” We get judgmental about this. If obesity is a disease, then it differs from other diseases in the degree to which many of us blame those who suffer from it. There’s discrimination against the overweight, and the bias and judgmentalism gets mixed up with what might be legitimate concern about public health. There is a prevailing attitude that the obese are morally contemptible. Studies show, for instance, that employers
“not only tend to assume that a fat person will be less reliable, energetic, and efficient, but are reluctant to hire the overweight for positions (receptionists, etc.) in which their size might affront the delicate sensibilities of potential customers and the general public.” (Francine Prose, Gluttony)
On the other hand, there is, at the same time, a recognition that gluttony fundamentally affirms pleasure and passion. Diamond Jim Brady (1856 – 1917), railroad magnate of the gilded age, the story goes, “would begin his meal by sitting six inches from the table and would quit only when his stomach rubbed uncomfortably against the edge.” The life force, the appetite, the unrestrained gusto for the pleasure of life manifest in such prodigious feasting inspires a certain respect. The fastidious fasting, dieting self-deniers are not so fun to be around.

We have contradictory attitudes about eating. The book of Proverbs warns:
“Be not among winebibbers, among riotous eaters of flesh. For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)
Yet in Ecclesiastes we read:
“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart. For God has long ago approved what you do.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
Nowhere are the contradictions of our lives and of our culture more obvious than when it comes to eating and body image. During any given half-hour of commercial television, you will see advertisements for restaurants, and fatty foods, and cooking shows. You’ll also see ads for weight loss that imply that eating is tantamount to suicide, that indulgence and enjoyment lead to social isolation.

We like food. It feels good. We can get obsessed with it if we get focused on too much – if we want only the finest foods, and we want a lot of them, and we want them right now. We also fall into obsession when we focus too much on denying the desire. Either way, we are defining ourselves by our desire – and that is the root of what gluttony is all about: allowing ourselves to be defined by desires for gratification.

In the balanced life, we have desire, and we are OK with the fact that we have desire. Our desire gets a seat at the table (as it were). But desire doesn’t gain total control. The voice of desire is neither suppressed nor indulged.

Paying attention to the voice of desire can guide us to a place where we respectfully hear that voice, and then make our own decision. That’s what neither repressing nor indulging looks like: it looks like separating ourselves from our desire, not identifying with it -- stepping back from it, yet paying attention to it. We can learn to investigate our desires, asking “What is this desire? Where did it come from? What does it have to say to me? What other desires are alive in me?” Freedom is not immediately caving in to every desire. Nor is freedom steadfastly suppressing every desire.

Be attentive, not indulgent. Talk to yourself: “Oh, there you are, you attraction to that cheesecake. I feel you there, pulling at me. And I know you are coming from a worthwhile place: you want me to have pleasure and maybe some energy from the calories and a little sugar rush. You’re just trying to look out for me.” From there, you’re in a much better position to choose. Maybe you then take that cheesecake, and maybe you don’t. Maybe you work out a different strategy to meet the need that is being voiced in you. By neither repressing nor indulging you are liberated from being controlled by the desire.

Desire isn’t you. And it isn’t your enemy. It’s a dear friend who’s a lot of fun, but sometimes gets crazy ideas. It’s not your master, and it’s not your slave: it’s your friend. So when your friend proposes some wild scheme involving, say, chocolate, you laugh. And then you’re thoughtful. And then you can either say, “OK, let’s do it.” Or you can say, “Let’s do that later. Let’s do something else, right now.”

We all have an inner glutton. It’s one of our teachers, telling us to enjoy what this sweet life offers us. But with this teacher, we don’t have to do every single assignment. And we can decide for ourselves how much we want to be graded on (ahem) the curve.

* * *
See also
The Seven Deadlies

No comments:

Post a Comment