Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sacrifice and Success

If I seem a little grouchy there’s a reason. My wife and I have embarked on a 28-day food intake program (read: diet!) that has one simple, basic rule: If it tastes good, spit it out!

For four weeks we have to eliminate two of my favorites, coffee and wine. And that’s just the start! Giving up dairy isn’t that hard because I don’t really like ice cream, and there’s no need for cream without the coffee. But the list of things we can eat is only a bit longer than the number of columns my detractors have agreed with. Needless to say, it promises to be a long month.

So why would otherwise reasonable people like us engage in something that won’t be easy, and certainly will demand long-term self-control? It’s simple. We have decided that the benefit outweighs the pain. We have committed ourselves to the proposition that a month of self-denial will yield better health, better medical numbers, and the ability to wear most all the clothes hanging in our closets. And as an added bonus, we’re trusting that four weeks of doing right will replace old eating habits with new ones that are better in the long fun.

Underlying all this are two ethical values that are often forgotten, or denied.  Most worthwhile things come at a cost, and if we put off that cost long enough, it can become overwhelming. The ethical principles at play here are incrementalism and delayed gratification.

Incrementalism is the slow march of compromise that ends up in tragedy. It is the process by which we become morbidly obese even though no one ever wants to be 50 pounds overweight. No one really wants to grow out of their favorite clothes. It just happens because we allow small compromises, small indulgences to become habitual without realizing the tragic consequences. This same process is happening in myriad ways in our society from economics and education to entertainment and its sense of what is morally acceptable.

Delayed gratification is the principle that I have to put off indulging myself now in order to have a more satisfying experience later. It is the only way to overcome the effects of incrementalism. At some point, we have to stop the madness, no matter how insignificant any single action may seem. We simply have to acknowledge that our appetites have taken control over our reason, and we have to learn to say “no” to ourselves. We have to take the pain now, change our thinking, adopt a better set of habits, and walk in a different direction.

As I listen to the news and read about the struggles we are facing as a nation it is clear that, collectively, our society has “incrementaled” itself into a kind of lazy, sloppy, functional obesity. We’ve become a nation of entitled adolescents, and I fear we are close to losing any sense of self-discipline. To right the ship we’ll have to make some hard commitments, trim some fat, say “no” to unhealthy economic and social appetites, and just generally grit our teeth and take the pain. If we keep living the way we are, we’ll keep getting what we’ve got, and while much is good in America, we’re drifting toward economic and moral tragedy with smiles on our faces. The best things in life are found on the other side of morality, courage, and self-control. Let’s pray we haven’t forgotten how to be a nation of mature adults who are willing to sacrifice now in order to create an honorable future for our children. Now excuse me as I go have my breakfast of tree bark and filtered water.


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