Temperance – Week 4

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

This week, I cut snacks off my diet, and reflected on hollow spaces and social coordination.

The sharing of a meal is the symbolic heart of the Christian ritual. It is central to building and maintainting relationships, whether in business or family. Eating together is an act of peace: the shared meal is an equalitarian utopia, where each gets according to their needs, irrespective of status or performance. For the magic to work, however, appetites must be coordinated, so that neither will eat too much or too little. The first rule of a polite guest is, don’t arrive at the feast with a full stomach. Loose eating habits signify more than a general lack of discipline: snackers will satisfy their hunger before considering the welfare of the group, and cannot be fully trusted.

Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. A friend came for lunch with cake and slice on Sunday and asked, surprised: ‘So you can eat snack food, if it’s part of a meal?’ The same applies to snacking and pornography: what exactly qualifies as such? The categories we use to guide ethical decisions are often vague. This is the cause of many conflicts. Yet this vagueness is not in our heads only: the world is full of things that do not fall within clear-cut categories. Some foods are clearly snacks: chips, lollies, mars bars, packaged in small individual portions, optimal for a quick rush of energy. Snacking is not eating whatever you want, but whenever you want. Yet ‘whenever’, we’re more likely to consume certain types of products, support the companies that produce them, and strengthen their underlying antisocial norms.

Snacking is rarely mindfully. The distinction between a snack and a meal is primarily one of attention: do we carve time out for the purpose of personal reconstitution through food? Meals give structure to our daily experience of time. Breakfast marks a beginning. Lunch ends the morning build up, and opens an afternoon movement towards completion. Dinner transitions to rest and sleep. Meanwhile, we consume snacks when things did not go quite according to plan, and we need an energy boost to face unexpected needs, whether cognitive, physical, or emotional. Snacks equate not only slack planning, but an attitude towards it: rather than pause to reconsider goals and deadlines, then compromise, postpone, or decisively renounce – we choose to embrace more. Snacking is lack of prudence. Hybris. For if our days are so full that we cannot afford a restorative pause, surely, we’re making wrong decisions. And a lunch eaten at the desk, while staring at the computer screen, should count as no more than a snack.

Meal times are set on the basis of a ‘standard’ day – but what happens when the schedule shifts? On Wednesday, I ran a workshop from 6 till 8, immediately followed by a Skype call. Should I plan dinner at 5, or at 9? For the whole morning, this questions nagged at me: if I don’t eat before the workshop, I won’t have enough energy to run it properly – but for a 5pm dinner,  I have to leave my co-working space at 4, and that’s too early. Then I realised, I was not looking at the situation honestly. Slack preparation was the root of my anxiety. And so, deciding to face the challenge head on, rather than schedule a 5pm dinner, I went on a long walk from Footscray to the City, during which I redrew plans for my workshop, stimulated not by an external fix of food, but self-generated movement. The workshop went well, then I had my Skype call, and a happy late dinner at 8:45.

During my childhood, meals were the most important moment of the day. On holidays, I stayed with my grandparents. I would wake up to find my grandmother in the kitchen, preparing lunch and dinner. Nothing took precedence. Yet this was not at the expense of social engagement or other pursuits: rather, this focus on preparing meals seemed to ripple into more general discipline.  After three and a half weeks of fasting, I sense a temptation to let go of anything other than the fast, and hibernate until Easter. I need to resist, weaving courage into my practice of temperance: social pursuits must take precedence over the quest for pleasure – anorexic retreat is just another form of indulgence.

After a while, you find new balance. When the week started, I increased portions, afraid I would starve between meals. It passed. I had a 5pm dinner on Thursday, woke up at 7h30 the next day, and didn’t feel the need to gorge. I tuned in to my own sense of satiety. Our  culture is built on excess. High input, high output. We snack to face our busy lives, then go to the gym and burn out excess calories. What would it be like if, when we feel pressure if, rather than shift into higher gear, we took time off, and focused on saving energy. Fasting supports deliberate efforts to maintain our inner space. If I feel a drop in my attention, if I feel upset, if the cognitive load increases, the solution is not ‘eat honey’, but go for a walk, stand up, reflect. Cyclical rhythms alternating fullness and emptiness underpin every part of our lives. If circumstances threaten to fill up our days, the wise response is not to balance off that pressure with more food intake, and sink deeper into the treadmill – but to more preciously guard our inner hollows.

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