Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Pleasure of Restraint

Which of these describes you?

1. Life is short. Eat dessert first.

2. Eat all your vegetables. Then dessert.

3. Sugar is bad for you and calories are fattening. Skip dessert.

Some years back, I lost some ten to fifteen pounds of the five I always thought I should and I have to admit that it felt good to tuck in my shirt in public. I felt physically lighter and mentally prideful that I had accomplished a goal. I had passed “The Marshmallow Test” and in fact, got extra credit because I chose one apple over the two promised marshmallows.

But as you can guess, the numbers on the scales fluctuated up and down in the years that followed. I was happy to see that for a long period in the pandemic, they leveled off at an acceptable place. Until recently. 

Someone once said that there is a Puritan hat hanging on a hook in the hall of every American household and it’s not one I welcome. John Calvin is the last person I’d want to invite to a party and besides the witch-burning thing (and also deeply connected with it), that self-loathing and hatred for the sensual—and sexual— pleasures of the body is something that I believe does damage to the soul. After all, “soul” is connected to soil, the body of this earth and its watery fluids and the mutual disdain for the rolling hills and dark caves of both the natural world and the female body, the flow of rivers and the flow of menstrual blood, reveals a deeply anti-natural and anti-feminine streak in the Puritan mentality that has wreaked havoc on Nature and women alike. And likewise drove underground the natural healthy sexual longings of men so that they explode out into weird distorted forms—witness the recent Matt Gaetz story. 

So if I have a craving for an ice cream or a chocolate bar, part of me gleefully follows it with an “in your face, Puritans!!” attitude. You will NOT deny me this exquisite sensual pleasure! But if I follow number 1 above and habitually treat myself, I may be punishing the Puritan in my hallway while at the same time feeding the rising numbers on the bathroom scale. On the other hand, if I skip to number 3 and forego such pleasures in the name of delayed gratification and the small satisfaction of tucking in my shirt, I capitulate to the mentality of life as spinach, something good for you in some abstract way, but not so good for the tongue and taste and the happiness of enjoying life’s bounties. What to do?

Years back when I reached the body state I had hoped for, I invented the “Doug diet.” It mostly consisted of eating less (one portion instead of two), oatmeal for breakfast and periods of no-sugar or again, much less. I didn’t want it to feel like sensual deprivation, didn’t want meals to feel like a battleground, didn’t want anything to do with Puritan denial. 

But the real secret was keeping my connection to pleasure, but changing what it meant. I discovered that just as there is pleasure in fulfillment, so is there a kind of pleasure in measured restraint. It could feel as good to say “no” as “yes.” It also meant finding the pleasure in a carrot as much as a cookie, a plain apple as much as apple pie, a cold glass of water as a carbonated fruit drink. It meant turning down the volume on the sensual song play and enjoying the nuances of simple pleasures over the bright lights of the sugar rush. The hope is to put away the Puritan hat in the closet without taking out the Roman bacchanal toga.

So I’m on Day 2 of my renewed commitment to philosophies 2 and 3 above, as the occasion calls for it. After writing all this, I need a snack. Carrots, anyone? 

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