When I was little, any hurt feeling or skinned knee was met with a loving hug from my mother, and a handful of Hershey’s miniatures. I preferred the Krackels, then the Mr Goodbars, and finally the plain milk chocolate. The bitter Special Darks — my mother could have those.
Even as adults, when we need to self-soothe, most of us turn to the easiest source of dopamine available: hyper-palatable foods like processed junk, meat, and dairy. And we know that these treats aren’t unadulterated pleasure. Too many of them, too often, and we suffer from overweight, sluggishness, moodiness, and the constellation of chronic diseases that plague our society.
Often, when people find out what I eat, they’re shocked. By two things.
The first is my supposed self-control. My iron-willed discipline.
The second is my willingness to deprive myself of the good things in life.
The two go hand-in-hand, of course. I only need the supposed self-control because I’m depriving myself so starkly and stoicly.
They remind me of the old joke: “Do vegetarians live longer? No, it only seems longer.”
I subscribe to Progressive Farmer magazine so I can understand and empathize with cow and chicken and pig farmers. One of the magazine's features is selected tweets by their subscribers.
This one caught my eye yesterday: “I don't understand people who don't cook with butter..what happened in their life to make them hate themselves that much?”
Following that logic, I must utterly despise myself for eschewing not only butter, but canola oil, gruyere cheese, Scotch eggs, and tenderloin.
Of course, that's not it at all.
I avoid butter and all the rest not because I hate myself, but because I love myself.
Rather than beating myself up and wearing a hair shirt, I’m executing a strategy designed to give me maximum pleasure and joy and happiness in my life.
When I ate butter, and sugar, and meat, and eggs, and milk, and cheese, I was a grumpy old man in my 30s. I had high cholesterol. I was overweight. I had little stamina. My back hurt all the time, so much so that I had to say no to rough-housing with my young children more than I said yes. I was depressed, and I didn’t realize it, because I made myself jolly with food several times a day.
Two Sides of Hedonism
Medical intuitive Carolyn Myss writes about human archetypes. These are patterns of energy that inform our characters and ultimately, our destinies. Some common archetypes include the Student, the Trickster, the Matriarch, the Orphan, and so on.
Each of these, Myss explains, has light and shadow attributes.
The Student, for example, may exhibit “humility and devotion to knowledge” (light), but also may display “arrogance in the pursuit of destructive knowledge” and “unwillingness to translate knowledge into action” (shadow). The light side of the Trickster transcends convention and stuffiness, while the shadow side tricks and manipulates others.
One of the archetypes Myss identifies is the Hedonist. The light attributes: “Inspires creative energy to embrace the good things in life. Celebrates the beauty in yourself.” And the shadow: “Pursues pleasure to the detriment of health. Indulges at the expense of others.”
And there it is. Being a hedonist in and of itself is neither good nor bad. It’s all about how you play the game.
Shadow hedonism drips with irony: the butter-lover suffering during the “golden” years (or not making it to them at all).
Light hedonism sparkles with a different kind of irony: saying no to the momentary high says yes to far greater pleasures. True hedonism — the pursuit of good things in life — seeks to maximize, not minimize joy. As true, committed hedonists, we don’t hate ourselves. Instead, we love ourselves more than the shadow hedonist can comprehend.
The Tweet in Context
I couldn’t help myself; I went onto Twitter to find the butter tweet in context. And talk about irony.
The tweeter was an Illinois seed farmer. She wrote lovingly about the pleasures and pains of being a farmer. Of the hard work, the uncertainties of the weather, the virtues of small town America, and the day laborers who change the radio presets in her combine.
And the tweet directly below the butter tweet mourned the passing of her boss, the owner of the seed company, of “natural causes” at the age of 68.
I know that I can be accused of being an insensitive asshole by sharing this story. Like I'm taking some kind of savage pleasure in the untimely death of a butter lover.
But that’s not what's in my heart right now.
Because I clicked into that obituary tweet, and read comment after comment from those mourning the passing of a pillar of his community. Someone who served two terms on the board of his local hospital. Who volunteered at his church, was active in his college alumni association. Who advocated tirelessly for the interests of small, independent farmers. Who will be missed, especially by his four grandchildren.
Two Family Legacies
Change the details, and you’re talking about my dad, who died of a heart attack at the age of 71, when I was 24. Who used to hide miniature Snickers and Milky Way bars in the freezer for me to find. Who taught me to play racketball and accompanied me to endless tournaments, cheering my victories and consoling my defeats. Who advocated tirelessly for the poor and powerless as a union organizer, lobbyist, and government official. Who laughed and loved and fought with the heart of a Maccabee.
Who never met my children, his grandchildren, who know him only from VHS copies of Super 8 film and a Rubbermaid container full of newspaper clippings.
He was the good kind of hedonist. He loved the ocean, and Italy, and the New York Yankees. He kept a gym bag in his car, and hired aides based partly on their ability to play squash, so he could always find a lunchtime game at the Newark YMCA. He didn’t smoke, he watched his weight, and he ate right – as far as he knew.
He died of dietary causes because we didn’t know any better back in 1989, the year of his passing. We believed the government gospel of the Four Food Groups, of health foods like lean skinless chicken breasts and skim milk and yogurt. Of moderation.
My mother, who also exercised daily and made sure she ate a “balanced” diet of foods approved by the American Heart Association, lived to the age of 91, while her mind began deteriorating about a decade earlier.
My children, who used to look forward to the Little Schoolboy cookies she gave them when they were sad, watched her lose control over her emotions, her words, her bodily functions, her very existence. They saw this energetic and brilliant woman, a former Olympic hopeful in swimming, a survivor of the Holocaust, live our her final years in a skilled-care dementia ward, unable to lift her own spoon or speak a single word.
My parents didn't know any better. They thought they were making healthy choices.
Now that some of us know better, we can't pretend to unknow it.
Now that the evidence for a whole food, plant-based diet is overwhelming; now that the World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a known carcinogen and all meat as a probable carcinogen; now that Forks Over Knives and The China Study and Whole and Proteinaholic and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease and hundreds of other sources all make clear What’s What — we are responsible not just for our choices, but for the outcomes they produce.
We are now responsible for what kind of hedonist we choose to be: the kind who embraces the good things in life; or the kind who pursues pleasure to the detriment of health.
The kind who derives indescribable joy from loving and serving family, community, planet, and God; or the kind who indulges our appetites at the expense of others, depriving them of the fullness of our vigor and clarity and years.
That butter tweet isn’t a joke to me. There’s too much sorrow, too much tragedy, too much suffering in my own family history for me to laugh off that kind of gee-whiz ignorance.
Were I to continue to self-soothe with Mr Goodbar and Krackel and Snickers and Milky Way and Little Schoolboy every time I feel sad or stressed or ashamed, I would be spitting on the lessons my own parents accidentally taught me. The lesson my father taught with his sudden death when I was 24. The lesson my mother taught through her painful decline into confusion, disorientation, and disintegration of her essence.
Do I want to remake their mistakes, leaving my own children to mourn and clean up my mess? Do I want to be introduced to my grandchildren, if there are to be any, through my podcasts rather than through rough-housing on the carpet?
Do I want to indulge my sweet tooth and my cravings for spare ribs and mozzarella at the expense of everyone I love?
Playing the Odds
I know, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. You have a Facebook friend whose great-uncle smoked and drank and never wore a seatbelt and ate bacon three times a day and lived to be 103 and was sharp as a tack the whole time. Life’s a crap shoot, and there’s no guarantee.
But I don’t want it to be my fault that I ended up with a minimized, incomplete life. I don’t want to be responsible for stealing joy from my loved ones. I don’t want my dark hedonism to eclipse the light hedonism that encompasses the full arc of my days.
The Legacy I Want to Leave
Here’s what I want people to wonder about me when I’m gone: “What happened in his life to make him love himself — and his family and friends and community and planet — that much?”