Inklings of Truth


Gluttons for Punishment

By Audrey Stallsmith

I grew up in a denomination whose members placed careful restrictions on themselves.  Besides dressing conservatively, they didn't drink, smoke, or engage in sexual relations outside of marriage.  But I noticed over the years that, while condemning the intemperance of others, a large percentage of these supposedly self-disciplined types were extremely overweight.

We might say this is an example of people "busting out" in the one area where they are allowed to do so!  But isn't gluttony considered one of the seven deadly sins?  I can only conclude that we don't take it as seriously as we do, say, pride, lust, and envy.  Perhaps we hope that God will allow us to "get by" with what we consider the least important of the seven.  But is it really so trivial?

In C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, one of the demons writes that "the contemptuous way in which you speak of gluttony as a means of catching souls. . .only shows your ignorance.  One of the great achievements of the last hundred years has been to deaden the human conscience on that subject, so that by now you will hardly find a sermon preached or a conscience troubled about it. . ."

That could be because pastors don't want to hurt the feelings of people who are obese due to other physical ailments or heredity--not through any fault of their own.  I think we can agree, however, that those people are the exceptions to the rule.  And, as G. K. Chesterton--an extremely chubby sort himself--pointed out, if we allow ourselves to be deflected by exceptions, "there will be so many hard cases that everything will go soft." Including our waistlines!

Also our pastors probably realize that gluttony is the sin of which modern American churchgoers are most obviously guilty.  So they may find it politically expedient not to bring it up!  And, as many of those pastors are carrying extra pounds themselves, they may prefer to avoid the subject altogether.

But gluttony isn't confined only to the overweight. Lewis defines it as a person's determination to get what he or she prefers, however troublesome that may be to others.  He was speaking at the time about the sort of woman who whines that she doesn't want to be any bother.  "All I want is. . ."  And then she names something that--however simple it may seem--is going to be much harder for her hostess to produce than what is already on offer.

As the Catholic encyclopedia points out, Aquinas considered that the sin of gluttony also included eating "too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily."  That latter, I imagine, would cover the too-picky character that Lewis deplores and those who try to make food an end in itself rather than a means of sustenance. 

It would also cover, I suspect, the American addiction to cheap eats.  We are able to spend a lower percentage of our budget on food, simply because our farmers have learned to produce it in huge amounts.  But at the price of depleted soil, a chemical-contaminated environment, and often the bankruptcy of foreign farmers--who can't compete with our prices when we attempt to dump our surpluses in their countries.

The guys in my family are chemical farmers, in that they use herbicides to control weeds in their fields.  When I occasionally try to argue with them about that, they point out that organic farming is just too difficult.  And, as someone who has to spend an excessive amount of time just pulling the weeds in my flower garden, I can see their point.  But I suspect that "too difficult" is not the sort of excuse that God is going to accept from us about anything!   

Although we connect gluttony mostly with eating and drinking, a dictionary I consulted defines a glutton as "a person who never seems to have enough of something."  And that, of course, doesn't just apply to food.

In their book, Stuff, Randy Frost and Gail Steketee detail how hoarders gather around themselves a fortress of things.  Although many hoarders have obsessive-compulsive disorders, the authors comment that for some this habit may just be a way of filling up space.  Empty emotional space, they don't have to add.

And, as anybody who has ever watched Oprah knows, overeaters frequently use food to fill up an emptiness in their lives.  These days, those dieters seem to be obsessing about not obsessing about their weight.  But, either way, they can't seem to let the subject alone!  Then there are, of course, the people who are addicted to shopping, gambling, other people, booze--even sex.

I think, perhaps, all these problems come back to us trying to satisfy our hunger for God and transcendence with things that are all too small and temporary.  As Frederick Buechner puts it "A glutton is one who raids the refrigerator for a cure for spiritual malnutrition.”  Stuffing our emptiness with food or other substitutes is just easier than trying to determine what our real deficiency is. 

We also define ourselves by the wrong things:  how we look or think we should look or the possessions we own, as opposed to what we really are.  This is why many hoarders feel traumatized when their things are called junk and taken away.  They think their identity is being denigrated and stripped from them as well.

But the truth is that, though we may crave excess, we don't really enjoy it.  Take, for example, those unfortunates who hoard pets.  How many cats and dogs can one person really play with? 

I often feel guilty because my only dog gets so little of my time.  I can't imagine how I would deal with a dozen or more!  And I suspect that the person who eats a whole carton of ice cream--or a whole package of cookies--at one sitting doesn't really savor much beyond the first few bitefuls either.

So the idea that more is always better is fallacious.  Doctors frequently have trouble with patients who believe that, if one pill helps them, two should help them even more.  When the truth is, of course, that overdosing could do them significant harm. 

And overexposure to certain drugs, such as antibiotics, can eventually make us immune to their effects.  Just as over-exposure to goodies can eventually deaden the pleasure we get from them.  God wants us to enjoy the good things he gives us, not over-sate ourselves to the point that we can't really taste them anymore.

It's natural for us to want to repeat pleasure.  In fact, I sometimes think that our constant repetition of what we've enjoyed before is our way of hanging on to the past.  Trying for some sense of security.  So we demand more and more of what gave us that enjoyment, only to find that we are receiving less and less satisfaction from it. 

Like pleasure junkies, we "get used to" our drug of choice and don't receive a "buzz" from it anymore.  So we lose our sense of gratitude and grumble about all the stuff we still don't have. As Dorothy Sayers said, “It is the great curse of Gluttony that it ends by destroying all sense of the precious, the unique, the irreplaceable. . .”

So maybe we should pay less attention to the stuff and more attention to the "unique and irreplaceable" people in our lives.  My married siblings were just discussing the fact that being committed to the same person for life is really like being wed to several different persons in turn, because people change.  I think it was Chesterton who said that a man who has one wife already has a virtual harem!  And I'm sure it's much more of an adventure to stay married to one person through all their metamorphoses, than to only experience bits and pieces of several spouses' lives.

But too often we don't really enjoy the other people in our lives because we are demanding from them things that they can't give us.  A sense of worth, security, etc.  Those things must come from God, and there is no way we are going to get them from gorging on anything--or anyone-- else.    

So we might as well lay off of the excess.  A little deprivation from time to time, after all, sharpens pleasure.  If I am on a diet, for example, and am allowing myself only a spoonful of ice cream, I will savor that single spoonful much more than I ever did my bowlfuls in the past.  Just as I always enjoy my meals more after I have been fasting than I do at other times!

Pleasure should not be, as we are making it, an end in itself.  St. John of the Cross even warns that our desire to get a thrill out of our religious experience is "a very great imperfection and productive of great evils."  Pleasure is often a byproduct of doing the right thing, but it shouldn't be the goal of our lives.  Nor are we going to be able to prevent change in our lives by hanging on to joys that are past.  Instead we should welcome the new joys that change may bring.

In fact, gluttony often prevents us from pursuing what should be our true goals.  Many people can't be missionaries simply because their poor health wouldn't allow it.  But that poor health is frequently caused by overindulgence. 

As Tony Campolo points out, "We must not do anything which would limit his [God's] work by impairing his instruments."  Maybe there are many modern Jonahs out there who are hiding from God's call, not in the bellies of ships, but behind their own bellies! 

We also shouldn't waste God's instruments on trivialities.  What we really are can only be defined by our relationships to eternal things--to God and other people--and by our moral choices.  Because those are the only things that will last.