Resolved

Several years ago, when I was a teenager, I set a new years resolution to refrain from eating any chocolate for the whole year. I don’t really know what exactly motivated me to set that particular goal. There was certainly some puritanical sense of virtue in the form of the idea that enjoying oneself is ‘sinful’. There was also some amount of Catholic envy towards my friend whose yearly observance of Lent sounded neat to me, but I didn’t feel like I could observe Lent while being LDS without stepping on her toes, so to speak. (I can’t mention my friend without also mentioning her great story about how her dad used Lent to kick his life-long smoking habit. ) There was also probably some quiet hope it would make me skinnier. What I was really after though, was something big that would be hard. Something that I wouldn’t forget about after a few weeks of half hearted effort. I wanted a resolution that I would keep.

Oddly enough  practically everyone said I couldn’t do it. Eating M&Ms was kind of my thing in those days. I carried a little bag of them everywhere I went. My friends joked that I would go through withdrawal and cease to function normally. My family at that time was the stereotypical LDS family who, denied the regular vices of tobacco, alcohol, and coffee, threw themselves headlong into desserts. Upon hearing my plan, my mom was afraid I was becoming anorexic. My dad took it personally and interpreted it as a condemnation of his own chocolate eating habits (there was a permanent spot on his desk where the bag of Hershey’s  kisses went).

The first month was really hard, as was the second. By the third month, however, it was significantly easier. Around the 4th month it was easy- a habit. At that time I knew I could make it the whole year, it was all downhill from there. What’s more my friends and family had finally given up on giving me a hard time about it.

One day, during the fifth month I ate a few M&Ms, and suddenly realized the 4 Noble Truths and the secret to true peace and happiness.

Actually that’s not quite what happened. During the fifth month I decided to put aside my resolution. Some of my friends thought I was flaking out, my mom was relived that I wasn’t anorexic. Now, more than a decade later I see those months as my puritan ethic’s last hurrah, which finally precipitated my own sort of realization about balance, and the purpose of self restraint.  (Yeah I know, it’s just candy, but that was a big part of my life back then.) When I started my goal was to do something big and meaningful, and in a way I succeeded. I had finally convinced myself that I could live the ascetic life, that I had the willpower, and that I could make myself do hard things. But after trying it for a while I couldn’t see the point of self-denial for self-denial’s sake.

I had been the person who ate candy just because it was there, thoughtlessly putting it in my mouth and barely noticing it enough to enjoy it. That was how I was raised, and it had come to be a part of who I was. Then I tried being the person who didn’t eat it at all, who thrived on the (misplaced) sense of virtue found in my own suffering. At last I learned that I could eat some candy and enjoy it, and that I didn’t have to give myself over to either extreme.

I’ve had to relearn that lesson several times since then. But I am glad that I was able to be flexible enough to let myself give up on something I had started when I found something much better along the way.

Starfoxy

Starfoxy is a fulltime caretaker for her two children.

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9 Responses

  1. Miri says:

    This is a great post. I don’t think it being “just candy” makes it any less significant. I think simply the fact of denying yourself something can often make you want it more, even if it’s something you don’t feel that strongly about. And I think that denying yourself just for the sake of doing it might have a purpose–like, say, showing yourself that you can do it–but before long it becomes just as silly an extreme as over-indulging in whatever it is. I love this point. I’ve started feeling the same way about some of the things Mormons culturally deprive themselves of “as a matter of principle.”

    For a long time I refused to watch any R-rated movies just because the prophet said not to, regardless of the fact that it’s a completely arbitrary rule and I saw many PG-13 movies that were much dirtier. For a long time I refused to drink coffee “as a matter of principle” (because Mormons don’t drink coffee), even though I really really wanted to and knew that caffeine has no effect on my body. I’ve since come to the realization that denying yourself something is not a virtue in itself, and doing something just because all the other members do it is not being righteous. Saying you’ll do everything the prophet suggests no matter what is not the ultimate good–it’s denying your own agency and taking the easy route by not coming to your own conclusions about things.

    I get a feeling here that’s similar to when I drive through a school zone. I think it’s really, really important to drive slowly and carefully near schools. But the ones I drive through generally have police cars sitting along the side of the road, and since I’ve gotten more than one undeserved ticket (and really, really cannot afford another), I spend so much energy making sure I don’t go above 20 that I am actually paying less attention than usual to my surroundings.

    Maybe this is slightly stretched from the original post, but to me it feels very much like when people are so obsessed with typical Mormon behaviors that they judge and alienate others who don’t observe them the same way. There’s no balance; we have that same misplaced sense of virtue from being able to cross everything off on the Mormon checklist, and we end up ignoring the ACTUAL tenets of Christ’s gospel.

  2. Angie says:

    I totally agree with Miri’s comment. It’s just crazy how we mess everything up in our heads. We’re like the priest and Levite in the Bible – we rush past those in need as we check off our to do lists of “good works;” we stress out about getting to our church meeting, where we will hear talks and lessons about peace; we accept callings to serve each other and use these callings to place each other on a hierarchy of worthiness.

    Regarding the candy fast in the original post it is seriously difficult for some people (like me) to be balanced. That’s why I love being around calm, centered people. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll become one of of those people. We do believe in a God of miracles, right?

  3. EBrown says:

    Living with a liturgical calendar, which includes Advent and Lent, I actually found pleasure in those efforts to do that to which I was unused. When I was a child it was easier to “give up” things, because my world was small and the things I had control of were few. Now I understand that thoughtful abstinence and thoughtful action are entwined. Sometimes I still “give up” things for Lent, just as I may choose a particular dietary regime for “health” or other reasons. I can also choose to “give up” acquire a behavior. One year I abstained from lattes and donated the money saved to Oxfam. One year I decided to meditate for 15 minutes every evening. I find these disciplines freeing because they are freely chosen and no one evaluates them except me.

  4. MB says:

    I like your point about how giving up for a while something you generally take for granted creates an opportunity for you reflect upon its role in your life in the past and consciously choose what role it will take in the future.

    • Miri says:

      I like this point a lot, too. I like the idea of doing (or not doing) things on purpose and with purpose, not just because that’s how you’ve done it before.

      I don’t think “because someone told me to” is a good reason to do anything, even if that someone is the prophet; I think we need to make all of our choices for ourselves. Following the prophet’s counsel is a choice, yes, but it’s not one that absolves you of any further responsibility. Essentially I think we just misunderstand what “following the prophet” means. I think it means you take each individual issue and look at it, consider it, decide that you’re going to follow the prophet’s counsel regarding that specific issue; you don’t just make a blanket choice to follow anything and everything the prophet says no matter what.

  5. CatherineWO says:

    I really enjoyed this post and the observations you had Starfoxy. I have celiac disease and several food allergies. Often someone newly-diagnosed will come to me for advice on the gluten-free diet. The first thing I always tell them is to focus on what they CAN eat, not on what they can’t. I do think there is strength to be had in denying ourselves something temporarily. It’s a practice that helps us learn selflessness. However, as every dieter discovers, long-term deprivation generally has negative results. I love that you were able to recognize when the lesson had been learned and stop the denial. I have found with celiac disease that I can handle never eating wheat again when I know that there are so many other wonderfully delicious and healthy things that I can enjoy any time I want to. That doesn’t mean that I pig out on chocolate (well, except at Christmas). But knowing that it isn’t entirely off limits makes it easier to balance my diet because I don’t feel deprived.

  6. Sijbrich says:

    I had a roommate in college that would often set the goal of no sweets so she would gorge herself on ice cream and cookies to get rid of her stash and start her goal. I don’t recall her ever making it past a week before she broke it. I tried to learn from her to not take things to the extreme and to just find balance.
    Goal setting is a funny thing. I’m not really into the protocol of writing down my goals and breaking them down into smaller goals, telling a friend or my husband about it to increase my chances of being successful, etc. This last year I was really hesitant to make any goals, but I secretly set some simple ones like reading through a stack of old books that I wanted to get rid of for several years. There just happened to be 12 books in the stack, so it seemed realistic to try and read 1 book a month. I am happy to report that I read and got rid of 10 of them (curse you, library, for all your distractions!). Technically I guess I wasn’t 100% successful, but I’m really happy about the progress that I did make and for some great novels I was introduced to and I’m considering myself successful. Enough so that I have created another stack of old paperbacks that I want to read and then get rid of.
    I enjoyed this post and the other commenters’ take on it. Something to think about with it being the New Year and all.

  7. nat kelly says:

    I think this is such a good model for developing good habits. I basically stopped drinking any sort of carbonation while I was in high school (initially for athletic reasons, then just because). Then I started to sip Martinelli’s again during special occasions, and have realized that it’s okay to enjoy it on occasion without guilt or worry.

    I’m currently working on the same thing with meat. I had a meat-fast between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve been eating meat again for just a week, and I can already feel the difference in my body. So while I don’t feel the need to be a strict vegetarian, I think a few weeks or months of absolutely abstaining will be able to train me to say no, so that I can say no in moderation in the future.

    Great post, starfoxy.

  8. Singlee says:

    Wow. This post and its comments have given me a little epiphany. I’ve got some theenkeeng to do.

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