When I was a child, and I wanted something, and asked my mother for it, she would invariable refuse, with the admonition, “You know what will happen when you have too much of a good thing.”
This admonition was most frequently applied to my desire for sweets and second helpings of regular meals, but she also said it in response to my desires for non-edible delights. She said it so often, she shortened it, saying, “Too much of a good thing…” as a standard response.
My mom is most comfortable in controlled circumstances. She lives according to schedules and duties, and she does everything according to the directions. She was the perfect adjunct to my father’s extremely controlling nature, and reinforced his repeated, “Not no, but HELL, no!” attitude towards all the activities and behaviors– normal, I might add– in which I wanted to participate as a young adolescent.
Having two such controlling and restrictive parents, I eventually stopped asking, but I vowed that, “When I grow up, I will never…” (apply any restriction whatsoever on whatever I wished to do, feel, think, eat, accept or reject.)
I grew up with what they called, in those days, “a weight problem.” In the beginning, I might have been a fat kid for several reasons, but as an adult, I kept myself fat, partly because of my childhood vow— so strong and well-entrenched– never to deny myself, restrict myself, hold myself back, for fear of reliving my childhood sadness of having been denied the experiences of peers. My adherence to this attitude towards food has been obvious, but only now, during my sixty-seventh year, do I understand that I have applied the principle to all areas of life. When younger, I applied the principle of permission to experiences, risks, and limits. As I got older, and more financially able, I applied the principle to the acquisition of possessions.
Now retired, and looking around with an eye towards the down-sizing that all older people must attempt, I see before me the evidence of my self-indulgence.
In the attic is a long, low bookcase of two shelves, packed with books I’ve accumulated over the years and haven’t yet read. In my closet, several dozen shoes are stacked and line up, but I only wear six or seven pair of them. Also in my closet hang clothes I haven’t worn for years and never will. On a tall bookshelf in the hall, I’ve set two dozen packs of audio courses in all the subjects that interest me, yet I haven’t listened to more than several of them. As for music and film, I don’t know how many DVDs, CDs, and even cassettes from before the CD era are packed into corners of shelves and closets. Even the hard drives of all my computers are filled with music I haven’t yet screened.
Images take more space than music; that’s one reason I bought an iMac with the biggest hard drive available. My Flickr header says I now have more than 6,ooo images in my photostream. While I’m on the subject, I confess that I’ve also accumulated a large assortment of frames, having planned to print and mount some of these images, but I’ve done so for only ten or twelve.
I usually own three to four swimming suits, ten to fifteen handbags, and three dozen scarves at one time. My latest example of profligate accumulation has been in the enrichment of my yarn stash. I now have enough wonderful yarn in all colors and natural fibers to feed my knitting frenzy for the rest of my life and the lives of those who come after me.
You get the idea. I’m not a genuine hoarder, however. I hoard objects in only the aforementioned categories, and maybe several more that have escaped my attention. I don’t hoard empty containers or knick-knacks or anything for which I have no use or care or no foreseeable function in the future. I throw-out garbage and empty waste baskets before they get very full, and I’m good about shredding old financial statements.
This behavior, I’ve now realized, reeks of my entrenched attitude of not denying myself anything I desire, if I am able to get what I want. If I cannot get what I want, I find a way or I forget about it, but I focus on that which is in my control.
Last week, a friend of mine confessed to a common anxiety. He said, “I often feel guilty about enjoying myself when I have tasks to complete.”
Without missing a beat, I replied, “Not me. I have the opposite affliction. I enjoy myself, and let everything else go.”
Even my political persuasions run counter to those in which I was instructed while growing up. I’m a left-of-center liberal, and Mom always thought I adopted that stance in rebellion to my father’s Tea Party position before the Tea Party existed, but she’s wrong. I did not rebel against anything, I merely let myself go, intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. I wandered far, and I’m still going.
Perhaps this vow, to never restrict myself in any way, if I can possibly avoid restriction, is partially at root of my being able to convert from Christianity to Islam. Surely, it is at the root of my bristling in front of all the behavioral imperatives that most Muslims adopt as part of Islam.
While living in Saudi Arabia, I tried to adapt myself. I set my mind towards acceptance of performing the five daily prayers, as well as the myriad little behaviors everyone else did as matter of sunnah (the example of the Prophet). I willingly covered myself completely, even my face when appropriate. I successfully fasted the months of Ramadan.
As a person who makes a determined effort not to restrict myself when I don’t have to by force of law or social pressure (and even to chuck those imperatives when I can get away with it), I easily pulled off the headscarf when I travelled outside the Kingdom, and I’ve never, to this day, been able to make all those daily prayers.
Even the dietary rules have gone out my window when not convenient, I confess. No, I do not restrict myself unless I choose to do so, and I rarely choose to do so. This year, I am hoping I qualify for a medical exemption so I can withdraw with impunity from the fast of Ramadan. As you can imagine, my lifelong commitment to immoderation has not always enhanced my health or well-being.
Now, however, in my second year of retirement, I am realizing for the first time how profoundly my principle of hedonism has infiltrated my entire existence, not just my dietary practices and religious track-jumping. It has exceeded its capacity for satisfaction, and has actually hindered me from enjoying its promises.
I must re-evaluate the adherence to excess that has marked my life in many ways. Actually, re-evaluation takes only a moment. What lies before me, practically, is the effort to voluntarily restrict myself, to appreciate and make use of what I already have, and to not add to the collections. I must now rein in, whether I like it or not.
I’ve taken steps, not easily, not thoroughly, not with pleasure but with an unfamiliar sense of obligation. As Mom says, “Who wants to sort through all of this stuff when I’m gone?”
She is right. I have an obligation now to face this lifelong commitment to extravagant living, and to atone for it.
I’ve given as many clothes to others and to Good Will as I still have unworn in my closet. I’ve weeded the book collection and parted with those I’ve read, giving up the intention to read them again, but adopting the intention to read those I haven’t. I’ve contributed to Mom’s rummage sale. I feel lightened, and I don’t miss what I’ve sent out into the world. I still have such a large pile of possessions to sort, and I’m not looking forward to the task.
The amount of money I’ve wasted on possessions that have not benefitted me makes my stomach turn. Recently I gave away a lovely jacket that had cost $60 even back fifteen years ago. I’d never worn the jacket because I’d never lost enough weight to fit into it. The only way I could give it away was to regard it as a sort of charity.
As far as my mental and emotional excesses, I’ve already suffered and benefited by many of them, but the bill has not yet been paid in full. The most difficult habit to change will be eating too much. I don’t know if I’ll succeed or even if I’ll make a prolonged attempt to do so. Maybe, as I practice restraint in the more outward areas of my life, I will strengthen my capability to restrain in inner aspect. Maybe, as I get comfortable with not increasing my yarn stash, I will learn how to get comfortable saying no to dietary excess. The rest of my life promises to be longer and more comfortable by reversing the guiding principle by which I lived since I left my father’s house forty-five years ago. Can I, will I, do it?