One Fat Tuesday during my dissolute youth, I accepted an invitation to participate in an annual eating contest known as the Phat Man Challenge. The test: eat a 1.5 lb triple cheeseburger and a 1.5 lb plate of chili cheese fries in 25 minutes. The prize: everlasting glory, and a t-shirt.
After 24 and a half minutes, feeling sicker than I’d ever felt in my short life and beginning to doubt my chances of survival, I put the last forkful of soggy, chili-soaked fries in my mouth and waved the waitress over.
I had competed well. I had won the Phat Man Challenge, and the glory (and bellyache) was mine.
As you might guess, that Mardi Gras was far from enjoyable. My “meal” was not about satisfying hunger, or even pleasing the palate: it was about winning, the dominance of the (competitive) spirit, a case of mind over three pounds of matter. It’s also an unbeautiful illustration of how we are both body and spirit. And yet, though we’re created to be a unity, peaceful harmony can often elude us. Breakdowns can happen, as when the imagination urges consumption even when the bodily appetites are more than content.
Another eating memory: one of my earliest and strangest memories is of me sitting at the kitchen table and devouring a sleeve of Ritz crackers. As I’d finish one, I would turn to my mother and beg, “One-more-that’s-all.”
Gluttony isn’t just about the body shouting down reason’s embarrassed protestations of moderation. Sometimes the mind is so taken by the startling, near-miraculous goodness of a thing that it pushes the body to consume “one-more-that’s-all.” The body can be bamboozled into over-indulgence. It might be another slice of that heavenly chocolate cake, or another pint of that craft beer I so rarely come across, but the body’s declaration of being content can be overridden by the almost-spiritual experience of that incredible taste. It almost seems wrong, criminally negligent, not to have more. We can even try to save face by blaming the body for bullying us into overindulgence.
Fr. Simon Tugwell, O.P., puts it thusly:
It is the mind, daydreaming, that demands the extra food, not the stomach. And surely the mind is, in the last analysis, the wrong organ to employ in this concern. Hunger must be restored to the stomach, it does not belong to the imagination. (The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions)
Our astonishing ability to convince our appetites that they actually have a want is the basis for the sprawling and swollen “lifestyles” that we’re occasionally startled to discover we’ve acquired. Suddenly we have appetites for certain bright, shiny, tasty, or comfy things that weren’t previously part of our daily life, yet now we can’t imagine doing without.
The result? We’ve complicated our lives by multiplying our desires and rationalizing wants into needs. The body’s appetites can be formed to expect and crave more, and reason’s neglect of the body’s protests of satiety can remold appetite into a squalling, entitled child, impervious to the now-anxious parent’s discipline.
Perhaps you have some restraint (or virtue) and have never tried the Phat Man Challenge (I don’t recommend it—plus I never got my t-shirt). But I suspect I’m not alone in fighting off temptations to create and multiply wants or to turn the occasional treat into a bare necessity. So what are we to do?
First off, we have to accept that a consumer-driven culture will offer zilch in the way of guidance or moral support. As Christians, though, we should expect to live differently. We need to recover the sense of living against the grain of the popular culture not merely in religious observance but in how we stock our cupboards, browse the internet, order at restaurants, furnish our living rooms, take vacations. This can be how they know we are Christians: by the concrete way our love for the Lord and for his gift of life shapes our “lifestyle.”
Practically, we could make a habit of taking the occasional hard look at our lifestyle, noting where we’ve started to accumulate stuff and digging deeper to see if we’ve created new “needs.” More drastically, it can take the form of what my mother darkly terms “The Purge,” which involves multiple drop-offs at the local St. Vincent de Paul. Another way is to integrate fasting in small ways into our weekly routine. Small mortifications can pare away the build-up of superfluous wants and can make us more attentive to what the body actually needs—which, in turn, restores the cheerful marriage of body and spirit, where each has a voice, and both sing in harmony.
Image: Jacob Jordaens, The Bean King (The King Drinks)