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.