I am the kind of guy who looks skinny. When I run into people after not seeing them for a few months, they always ask if I’ve lost weight. The answer is always, “No. You just forgot how skinny I look.” I pull off this optical illusion through no virtue of my own, however—just a combination of good genes and a youthful metabolism.
“So,” you might ask, “What does a skinny guy have to tell me about gluttony?” My answer is a variation on the old gorilla joke: What does a boy with good genes and a youthful metabolism eat? Whatever the heck he wants! For years, I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
To such a young man, talk of gluttony was a tough sell.1 To me, gluttony was the fixation of those early Christian ascetics who went out into the desert and lived on the top of tall pillars to escape contact with the world. In fact, I prided myself on being Catholic, the religion whose appreciation of food and drink scandalized the more puritanical branches of the Christian family tree.2 Some people equate difficulty and pain with spiritual growth, and they have a knee-jerk reaction against people anywhere enjoying life. I knew better: pleasure wasn’t bad, and I did not have to listen to their uptight moralizing.
This all came to a head in the past few years, though—finally, my youthful metabolism gave out. Good genes kept me looking skinny, but in the bathroom I started noticing the scale ticking upward. First five, then ten, and eventually 25 pounds over my P.J.W!3 Love handles without the love life to endear them to me! I finally decided to do something about it. I would watch what I eat and then watch the pounds trend downward.4 I decided upon a target of 15 pounds over P.J.W.
I started this way of life and then noticed… nothing. Nothing happened. I tried really hard and no weight was lost! I went without dessert some nights, I turned down seconds once a week, I thought about fruit guiltily when I snacked on some cookies. Why did it seem like I was putting so much effort into making the most minimal changes?
The answer, I believe, is gluttony. All those years doing whatever I wanted, and I had expected to turn around my will with some pious thoughts and vague resolutions. Those crazy desert ascetics knew better. They knew that once the will got going in a certain direction, trying to turn it was like trying to do a spin move with the Queen Mary. That brings us to lesson number one.
1) When you do something long enough, it becomes easier. That goes for good habits… and for bad.
While the early Christian ascetics may have at times gotten fixated on particular vices like gluttony, they were right about avoiding the enslavement of our wills. Our choices do matter: they make us into a certain type of person. My choices as a young man made me a certain type of person: the type of guy who can turn down mint chocolate chip ice cream twice a week and feel like he is training for the Olympics. I got into that gluttonous habit of eating whatever I want, and now it will require a similar consistency and persistence to retrain my character to “leave a little on the plate,” as it were. While it is easy to go overboard, the solution to gluttony was suggested by those desert monks all those years ago: try a little fasting.
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2) The best way to curb your appetite is not rules, resolutions, or other big acts of will. It’s to pay attention to how you feel after indulging.
Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. People had warned me for years that metabolisms shifted. I had even heard the churchy warnings about the dangers of gluttony. I just had disregarded them. They didn’t see what I saw… Pizza is delicious, I like to eat delicious things, ergo, I should eat any pizza in my vicinity that is not defended by superior force or bonds of friendship/family (well, unless they aren’t looking). The reality is, I don’t know if anyone could have convinced me otherwise.
Maybe gluttony is one of those things you may just have to try for yourself. Without trying it, it is just too easy to assume that the prohibitions, recommendations, and limitations given by other people are just arbitrary rules, designed to screw you out of what is fun in life. If “they” really knew what was up, they wouldn’t be trying to foist their rules on you, man.5
Similarly, I noticed the best way to curb my appetite wasn’t to chastise it or set rules. I just slowly began listening to my experience more closely. After overeating, I asked myself, “How do I feel? Did I enjoy that more than I would if I had eaten less?” Again and again, I started to notice myself wanting to eat less, not more, because I was clearer in my head about the consequences that came with it.
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3) Fasting is part of a balanced life… but only a part.
Ruminating on all this stuff, I found myself going back to browse the writing of some of those early Christian ascetics I had dismissed before. Did they have an answer to my gluttony problem? Some combination of bread, water and dour living that I could build into my Lenten resolution this year?
To my surprise, these writers didn’t obsess as much about eating as I thought. They recommended fasting, sure, but not as an end in itself, and they were quick to point to the importance of living justly rather than self-denial. One of my favorite quotes, from the early bishop St. Basil, puts things in perspective: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”6 Ouch. His buddy St. John Chrysostom didn’t let me off the hook, either: “Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them… For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eye, your ear, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body.”7
I guess if I am going to curb my disordered appetites this Lent, maybe I should worry more about what I can put into someone else’s stomach rather than what I can’t put into mine.
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4) Gluttony can be any obsession with food, not just overeating.
In fact, many of those same ascetics saw overeating as only one part of gluttony. You could also be a glutton by eating too soon or too quickly… or even too daintily. Yeah, I get that. Perhaps my biggest gustatory obsession is about something I rarely over-indulge in.
You’ve heard of foodies? Well, I’m a “beer-ie.” I love beer. Not in the way a frat boy loves beer—more like the way a hipster foodie loves, say… eating tomatoes bred by our third president. I like paying attention to flavors and pedigrees and varieties—trying to chase down the most exalted beer experiences rather than the experiences with the most beer. When I go to a bar, I need to try every obscure microbrew; when I go to a picnic, I turn my nose up at the Coors Light; when I talk with my friends, I wax pretentious about “fruit undertones” and various degrees of “maltiness”.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with being adventurous or knowing something about what makes one beer nicer than another, but I was just replacing one obsession—quantity—with another—quality. It made sense to me: I liked the taste, so I wanted to maximize the amount I liked the taste. But it didn’t end up working out to more enjoyment, which brings me to my final lesson.
5) In the end, gluttony and indulgence don’t add to our enjoyment of life… they subtract.
Perhaps that is the saddest part of gluttony. In the name of enjoying food and drink, we slowly lose the ability to actually enjoy food and drink. I began as a beer-ie because I really enjoyed a nice beer, and I wanted to enjoy it more by taking the time to learn about it and giving new beers a chance. But I ended up never being satisfied with the beer in my hand, since I was always comparing it to some other “more perfect” beer. Similarly, when I eat too much of my favorite foods, I notice I don’t actually enjoy the food more. If anything, I stop paying attention to the flavor and the texture because I am thinking instead about the amount and getting more and more.
I truly believe that God made food delicious and beer, uh, beerlicious? because God wants us to enjoy these things.
But the best, most pure enjoyment that food or drink can bring will always be the spontaneous one, the unexpected one, not the grasping, gluttonous one. My most intense sensations of pleasure with food and drink are always when I suddenly look around at the company I am in and slow down to savor the bite in my mouth and I am surprised by that feeling: “Wow, this is great. I must have a Maker who loves me pretty much.”
Turns out, getting “What I want, when I want” isn’t nearly as nice as enjoying what I’m given, when I’m given it.
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- A classic scene from Babette’s Feast, one of the great food porn movies of all time, shows a group of austere Danish Pietists having nightmares at the devilish prospect of eating a fine dinner prepared for them by their French cook. They resolve their moral dilemma by promising that when they eat, it will be “as if we had no sense of taste.” Check out their fascinating/disturbing discussion here. ↩
- Yes, that is totally a real thing. Even the Catholic frickin’ Encyclopedia doesn’t seem to know whether to chuckle, to frown disapprovingly, or to wonder at their hard core attitude. ↩
- Pre-Jesuit Weight ↩
- All doctors recommend exercise to go with a dietary regime change. I, however, made the mistake of trying to add an early morning run to my schedule, thus combining two of my least favorite things—“early morning” and “running”—into one unbearable package! That, I believe, is called setting yourself up for failure. ↩
- Teenagers are great at this stuff. One of the most surreal parts about teaching high school was watching my students mentally tune me out because I was old and, therefore, clueless. Strangest of all, I remembered doing exactly the same thing at that age. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that my parents, teachers, mentors had wanted, and done, the same stuff I was obsessed about, and their advice about moderation was actually based upon a life of those experiences! ↩
- Homily on Fasting, 10. ↩
- On Fasting. ↩