Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Coming of age in the late 60’s, restraint was not a word my friends and I used often. It was much more interesting to “let it all hang out,” to “do your thing” and hey, “if dogs run free, why not we?”
And that mother-lode of permission: "If it feels good, do it!" Puritanism was the hang-up of uptight squares (does anyone understand this vocabulary anymore?), indulging our appetites when it came to sex, food and recreational drugs was the zeitgeist of the times.

Looking up a list of synonyms, there are many that still have negative connotations for me—restriction, confinement, hindrance, inhibition, limitation, repression, secretiveness, suppression, withholding. But there’s also moderation, self-control, self-discipline, self-possession, within limits. And so all these decades later, the conversation between the two poles of restraint and indulgence continues and within that tension lies some pearls of wisdom worthy of attention.

A few years ago, tired of wishing I’d lose 10 pounds, I set off on a self-proclaimed Doug Diet— cut down on sugar, ate one portion of meals, kept an eye on compulsive snacking. By sticking with it for over 6 weeks, there were actually results! The numbers on the scale went down and I felt rewarded by restraint. Now I could tuck in my shirts in public and not suck in my belly during photo shoots. Yeah!

But the real secret was exchanging the pleasure of indulgence, the “life is short—eat dessert first” philosophy for the pleasure of restraint. I switched my pleasures from ice cream to carrots, from the feeling of satiation to the feeling of “not quite full,” from the freedom of following my appetite to the different kind of freedom to say “no thanks.” I didn’t want it to feel like the Puritan hair-shirt and by keeping pleasure in the mix, but shifting its focus, I was able to have my cake and eat it too. Sugar-free, of course.

I held steady for a few years, but of course, the pounds crept back up and after my recent European travels with little control of my diet or exercise routine, it felt time to pull out the restraint card again. No results on the scale yet three weeks later, but I’ll check back in in another month or so.

This topic deserves much more attention than mere diet. Another synonym for restraint is “economy” and reading Wendell Berry’s latest essays, this is much on my mind. As a culture, restraint is not high on the list. Just look at our gun laws, our fast food advertisements, our drug and alcohol problems, our speed limits, our machines offering instant gratification, entertainment and distraction, our police treatment of black folks, our adoration of billionaires, our President. We do live in a world with both natural limits—like the ozone layer and calories—and cultural ones—like human rights and legal protection—and we would do well to re-define economy with those limits in mind.

But this is a theme for another posting. First I’m going to eat a carrot. Yum!

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