Disciplining Our Appetites

Part One: The Problem

 “No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person”                           –Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

In a world where mass consumerism is normative, where one can purchase a cheeseburger for thirty-five cents, an easy day’s earning for even a homeless individual and, for most people, the minimal amount under one couch cushion, it is easy to become enslaved to our appetites without ever knowing of the addiction.

In many cases, addiction can be an insidious and apparent manifestation, obvious to any onlooker. However, for many of our society it is unseen, even to the person who possesses the problem. You could have a problem and not even know it.

Sometimes the issue is simply not perceivable. At other times, like in the case of gluttony, it is simply ignored by the person and our greater society.  The bottom line is that many do not even know they have an addiction, or refuse to recognize it as such. If we refuse to call the problem what it is, we run the risk of leading our youth astray.

Take for example the child who grows up in the low-income home of a single-mother who has little choice but to bring home fast food after she finishes her shift at her second job. The adolescent succumbs to childhood obesity, and people just attribute his or her build to “baby-fat.”

In other words, people care little to see the glaring neglect for health in many homes. Once we see a problem, we are morally culpable to address it the best we can. Willful ignorance is the easier route for our society since the issue is so prevalent. The child grows up to be an adult who enjoys the comfort of a full and heavy stomach and is never informed that what he or she is doing is leading to an early death. Yes, they may see the occasional TV News special on heart disease, but our overall culture simply does not get up in arms about harming the self with food as we do with, let’s say, cigarettes.

The truth is that this person does not know his or her addiction because he or she has never had to refrain from assuaging his or her appetite. If you ever want to know the extent of addiction and have never battled with one, try changing your diet to exclude those foods you most enjoy. If you are like me, it is a battle. You will go to great lengths to justify a cheat. Our society is full of people who are enslaved to their appetites, and they do not even know it.

Is this such a problem?

The Bible tells us that we are to feed the hungry. In the biblical world, this was an immediate and local problem. In our society, we don’t run into the hungry everyday. Does this mean we are off the hook? By no means! The principle still applies. Hunger is suffering, and can lead to an early demise. Obesity brought about by overeating is suffering, and can lead to an early demise as well.

This is a cultural issue we need to answer. Someone might say, “Yes, but the obese can control the issue, while many hungry people have no other option.” All the more reason for the church to raise awareness about the benefits of self-discipline, is it not?

It is not merely the child from the low-income home who has never learned of the risks of unhealthy eating that has the problem. How much more can this be a problem for someone who has all the means in the world to have whatever might be purchased and lives with no real concern for restraint?

This one’s life is not dictated by any higher drive than bodily compulsion. The most base of human desires is fulfilled day-in and day-out to somehow give this person a sense of satisfaction, but it is not a satisfaction with any sustenance. It expires as soon as it is experienced, and it is once again replaced by want. His or her flesh enslaves this person.

It is a cyclical life that moves nowhere. Even many persons who are highly successful, who can do whatever they want to do, cannot yet be considered free, for many of these persons pursue success simply so that they can have more of what they want. If one is the sort of person to bow to every desire he or she has, he or she is a slave to those base wants. If you cannot say no to yourself, you have no real control over your life.

And isn’t this the human condition?

We must learn to manage our bodies through active discipline and fight for those who suffer from addictions that eventually lead to premature death. Part Two coming soon.

-TM

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  • Jim Morgan

    Tab,

    Enjoying the blog, and this post. As someone who had to grapple with my unhealthy relationship with food early in life, it certainly can be helpful to recognize how food can be an unhealthy coping mechanism. I’d like to hear more about how the society we live in contributes and encourages us to develop these kind of addictions. I resonated with your example about the low-income mother who has no choice but to bring home fast-food, and the child who learns to enjoy it, but at the same time I think the issue is more than simply about mis-education. Healthy food options are a luxury that are often out of reach for low-income individuals and families, as is exercise. Being Methodist myself, I love the language of discipline, but I also know that the relative convenience with which I am able to care for my health is largely a product of my affluence and education.

    P.S. Richard tells me you are from Claxton. I’m from Sylvania myself. Good to see another Georgia boy making waves in the world.

    -Jim

    • EchoStaff

      Jim, that is a good point and one I want to reflect on for some time.

      I certainly would not say the whole issue boils down to discipline, as subsequent posts on this blog will illustrate, but I do think it is one of the major factors for our lack of health in most of the American context. The issue, at least for the majority of people that will read this (those who have the luxury of reading internet blog articles), is not “Can I eat?” but “What should I eat?”

      I broke this up into two parts, and as you will see in the next post, I am really trying to reach a certain demographic with this article. That demographic is represented by the person that does have the means to take care of the self. The affluence that makes healthy food (aka real food) available to us is the same affluence that makes going out and eating copious amounts of junk a possibility too. That is where discipline has to come into play. We have to say “no” to ourselves.

      But your comment brings up a whole other issue. Let me see if I can briefly address it here. In advance I will thank you for giving me another idea for a future article…It may look a little something like this:

      What about people who cannot afford real, healthy food? This is an issue I face all the time. My ministry works with the Navajo people of the South West, and fresh produce is not something they have right down the street at the local grocery store. So, what do we do, we who promote health as a Christian practice?
      Well, there are two things that must be considered. First, we must consider what Christ told us when He said there will always be poor persons in this world. What does that mean? It means we cannot help them all, and it means that we cannot hold them to the same standards we would hold ourselves to since we do have means. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, this is a call to disciple to those who can say no, not a burden to those who cannot. We should not project this responsibility upon our friends of lesser means.
      Second, if we as the church are in the business of reconciliation, and I think we are, then we need to do what we can to help persons of lesser means live well. What this always looks like, I am not sure. But, I hope our conversation might strike the right hearts of persons that do have ideas to share with the church on such matters.
      Thanks for the input; we Georgia boys gotta stick together.
      -Tab

      • Jim Morgan

        Thanks Tab. Looking forward to reading more about it.

        -Jim