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Everyone's life is a journey, and we're all a work in progress. Hopefully, there's a happy ending--heaven; but that depends on our making the right choices in response to God's grace along the way, or at least on the rebound at the end of our life. (That's why we ask so insistently in the Hail Mary for her to pray for us sinners...at the hour of our death.)
For we have various (and sometimes conflicting) desires and urges: to eat, drink, be merry, rest, show and be shown affection--all things that give us pleasure at a fairly basic physical level. But we also desire what could be called second-order preferences, more spiritual: for truth, goodness, beauty, love, success in sports, relationships, family, work--in short, all that comprises happiness in life.
Jesus said that "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me." He is the Way, and his way leads to Calvary and then the Resurrection and eternal life.
Self-denial is a necessary part of this journey. We must be ready to give up present pleasure for future gain. This is a law of life. The athlete must practice and exercise and diet if he wants to be successful. The student must buckle down and hit the books if he wants to master a subject. No self-denial, no virtue. First-order preferences must sometimes be sacrificed to second-order ones. Indeed, that is what distinguishes man from the other animals, that we can subject our desires to the rule of reason, subordinating lower to higher desires.
I was reminded of this recently when reading the introduction by Gerard Wegemer, Director of the Center for Thomas More Studies at the University of Dallas, to the new edition of St. Thomas More's "The Life of Pico," just published by Scepter Press. Commenting on the life of Italian Renaissance humanist Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), St. Thomas composed "twelve short 'Weapons of Spiritual Battle.' These weapons are maxims easily remembered and quickly recalled. The first is 'Pleasure Little and Short' reminding us that 'whatsoever delight' may attract our appetite will always be 'little, simple, short and suddenly past.' Or Weapon 3, 'The Loss of Something Better' succinctly and memorably wants us not to be a 'mad merchant' who 'sells your soul' in order 'to buy a trifle.' But perhaps most powerful is Weapon 9, 'The Peace of a Good Mind,' which begins by asking 'Why dote so on these transient, worldly joys' and concludes with the strongly rhymed declaration:
'You shall no pleasure comparable find
'To th' inward gladness of a virtuous mind.'"
Self-restraint and self-control are a particular challenge amidst our culture of plenty and abundance. The average American can now enjoy food and drink and amusement that only decadent Roman emperors or a Louis XIV could enjoy in ages past.
The result is an epidemic of obesity, proliferation of addictions to tobacco, alcohol and drugs (not to mention internet pornography), and record levels of personal and collective indebtedness, not for the sake of investment in a better future, but to fund consumption. People are borrowing against their future to spend lavishly on present consumption.
We have lost all sense of moderation, shame, guilt and personal responsibility. Pope John Paul II lamented the "loss of the sense of sin." Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist everything except temptation." Impulsivity is a problem.
One trick is to put temptation out of reach, like Odysseus having himself tied to the mast so he wouldn't succumb to the sirens. We've got to plan ahead to live according to reason. Getting up at a set time in the morning, rather than succumbing to laziness, gets the day off to a good start.
Pardon the admittedly scatter-shot hectoring, but we need to exercise moderation in food and drink. We need to always treat everyone with respect. Marital fidelity is crucial. Love is the only adequate response to people, and in order to make the sincere gift of self, we need self-possession and self-control.
While television and the internet definitely have their legitimate uses, we shouldn't be wasting hours each day watching television at home or just surfing the internet at work. Stop being a couch potato or like Pavlov's dog and become the human being you were meant to be (and actually, are, even in spite of yourself.)
Moderation in the pursuit of pleasure is the cardinal virtue of temperance. Moderation is also key to avoid the seven capital sins of pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. We need self-control, it turns out, not just to thrive, but to survive! Who'd a thunk it?
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.