I Want a Cookie or Self-Indulgence

I was going to title this “Discipline”, until I realized that I don’t really have much insight into discipline, but have much into its corresponding vice, Self-Indulgence.  Much of this essay will probably be about the abuse and extortion of food.  That is because I struggle with this constantly.  The incessant reminders of what “thin” means in today’s society may augment my impression of the struggle.  I could possibly be blowing my demise way out of proportion simply because I wish to be thinner, and cannot seem to attain this end of my own volition.  However, the premises would remain the same on a smaller scale or, indeed, applied to a different subject, and perhaps it is good to exaggerate them to stress the points.  Thankfully, for you as readers, there is almost an unlimited choice of other areas that my self-indulgence branches out into, so perhaps you will not be bored. 
Self-indulgence is one of those pesky vices that can rear its ugly head in every aspect of your life.  So, you may conquer it in one area, but it does not mean that you have purged yourself of it altogether.  Granted, it is probably easier as you go along.  Winning a small battle here and there will probably strengthen your ability to be the victor of the war, but it by no means ensures it a certainty.  I’m not sure that there is a better way to begin with this subject than to jump right in to specific issues.  So, here we go.
Example #1:  I have a little debt that I would really like to pay off.  It’s credit card debt, which means that the credit card company allows me to make unreasonably small payments in order to milk my debt for all of the interest it’s worth.  At one point, I seemed completely unable to motivate myself to pay any more than the required amounts, though fully aware that my moderate debt would take me approximately 7-8 years to pay off at that pace.  Well, I’m fairly reliable when it comes to finances, meaning, I always pay my bills.  If you send me a bill for a specified amount, you’ll probably get that amount, and even before the due date.  So, I appealed to my logic: if I had a bill that required me to pay more than the credit card bill required me to pay, I would pay it.  And off I was to search for a bank loan to pay off my credit card debt, for the bank would undoubtedly want their money faster than the credit card company, therefore requiring me to pay more and aiding me in getting out of debt faster.  Well, it turned out that my credit card had an unusually low interest rate that my bank could not compete with, AND this loan would require something like a $150 start-up fee.  The bankers were, for some reason, still trying to talk me into this loan after we reached these conclusions.  I may be self-indulgent, but I’m generally not just plain stupid.  I did not take their loan offer, and walked out of the bank feeling a little dejected.  And then I thought to myself, “How ridiculous am I being?  If I want to pay more on this bill, then I should just pay more on it.  It’s like a child to have to wait until someone forces me to do something in order to accomplish it.  I may as well be in elementary school if I have that little discipline.”  And so I began paying more.  It is now approximately one year later, and I am two thirds of the way through paying it off.  And now a little confession – I have begun my examples with the one at which I have been the most successful.  Clearly, I want you to have an impression of me more favorable than is honest. 

Example #2:  I want to lose a little weight.  I am not fat, but I am just at the point at which all of the clothes I used to love accentuate all of the worst things about my slightly larger frame.  In other words, I have taken the very necessary first steps towards becoming fat by becoming fatter.  I have been at this point for well over a year.  I seem completely incapable of doing the things I know I need to do in order to accomplish the goal of getting back to my desired weight.  I have gone through a few phases where I did well.  For nearly two months, I ate almost exclusively vegetables and fruits during the day, and then dinner was carte blanche.  Somehow, I didn’t lose any weight during this period (probably because my fruit likes far outnumber my vegetable likes), but I felt better about myself, and better in general.  Obviously, the feeling better about myself does not come solely from accomplishing the goal of losing weight, because during this span of time, I was at peace with my eating habits, even without shedding pounds.  It was being disciplined about it that increased my self-esteem.  But, alas, this ended while I was traveling for the holidays.  It’s quite difficult to be so limited in what you ingest when you’re visiting someone else’s house, unless you want to appear finicky at best and rude at worst.  I also managed to cut out sweets altogether for a short time, but this ended as well.  I’m not quite positive how, but I’m sure it had something to do with PMS or being frustrated with work or something of that nature.  My self-indulgence in this area continually causes my self-esteem to plummet; causes me to feel like a spoiled child incapable of understanding the consequences of my actions.  8 cookies for breakfast = fat.  I seem to have a serious lack of forethought, in this, and most areas.  I know what the consequences are, but like the cliché of a teenager in a drag race, seem to believe I am invincible.  But as I’ve said, it’s not just the weight part of this struggle that troubles me.  It’s my complete (seeming) lack of ability to control my impulses.  I like (as I’m sure most of us do) to pretend to myself that I am more disciplined than your average Joe – that if I choose to do something, I can do it.  I believe half of the value of self-discipline is proving to yourself that you are capable of doing something, or not doing something, whichever the case.  Only I prove to myself the exact opposite.  I have proven over and over that I am quite as self-indulgent as everyone else, and undoubtedly more so than those whose slim figures drive me to self-loathing and disgust.  I have a friend who is thinner than I am, by just a bit.  She was, in the very recent past, one of those people that everyone would comment: “She’s so thin,” with envy disguised as admiration or simple observation.  This friend informed me a few weeks ago that she was joining Weight Watchers.  Bear in mind that she was apparently going to join in order to lose the same amount of weight that I would like to lose, or at least no more.  The thought that someone so obviously not obese (and already thinner than I!) would think to join Weight Watchers seemed ridiculous to me.  She was ascribing to the same philosophy I had initially taken with the bank loan.  If she had someone forcing her to do it, she would.  At that moment, I thought myself better than her; that I could do it simply by choosing.  I was in denial – in denial about the past year and a half, because if I could do it simply by choosing, I would have done it by now.  Unless, the point is that I have not really chosen.  Is this the point?  Can two, so diametrically opposed positions, “I want to lose weight,” and “I want to eat the cookie,” coexist?   Does “I want to lose weight” simply fly out the window at the moment of eating the cookie, or does it change to something like “I will start losing weight after I finish this cookie?  And will this amended statement only be true until I am seriously tempted by the next cookie?  When I, in no uncertain terms, decide to lose weight, is it then that I will begin accomplishing it?  Honestly, I’m not sure, but I am aware of at least a few rationalizations that come into play, deluding me into thinking that I am not being self-contradictory.  One is that somewhere my mind understands that this cookie will not necessarily make me fat.  However, it does not seem to be able to grasp the fact that eating every cookie I come in contact with, will.  It is hard to see the danger in the collective, when you are looking at the singular.  I have a feeling that alcoholics probably do the same thing, i.e. this drink will not make me too drunk.  Possibly, it is that whichever desire is heaviest on the balance scale wins, although I don’t believe so, because I have some pretty weighty desires on the side of not eating the cookie that often seem to lose, i.e. not becoming a diabetic (it runs in my family), better self-esteem, fitting into my clothes, proving the steadfastness of my character (and all over a cookie!).  The lust for a cookie is much more primal.  Much closer to a very straightforward, “I want.”  Perhaps that is why it wins.  It’s like the collegiate professor trying to argue with simpleton.  The professor’s arguments go all above the simpleton’s head, and while the professor is rattling on with his profound arguments, the simpleton ignores that “nonsense” and, completely unperturbed, does the thing he was intending to do.  Maybe I should just take an adult’s position as to a child, and when I want a cookie, simply slap myself on the hand.  And although I’m sure this would cause me a few other problems, perhaps that is all this primal desire understands.  I also believe that the self-indulgent voice in my head usually argues something along the lines of “I deserve.”  And therein lies another flaw, another severe defect that leads us far from discipline.  Our rights…this right to a cookie, the right to some little pleasure when the whole rest of the world seems against us.  The world is cruel to make a little thing like a cookie such a moral dilemma, with my self-worth hinging on the balance of to eat or not to eat.  I am sure the men reading this will think how dramatic I have become.  The women will understand exactly what I say.

Perhaps I can put it into more universal terms, even sticking to the issue of food.  I’ve worked in the food industry, and I cannot tell you how amazed I’ve been at the mastery food has over a person’s character – how a dignified man in his business suit can turn into a ludicrous madman over a simple case of missing mustard…an irrefutable case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or how a well-dressed, mouse-voiced woman can articulate to you the order in which the ingredients must be stacked on her hamburger, by drawing you a picture, and labeling each item in its place.  Although I cannot dispute the understandable expectation to get what you have ordered in a restaurant, I can greatly disapprove of the reactions that NOT getting exactly what you have ordered will bring about.  I’ve seen this businessman acting exactly as your two-year-old would if you were out of his favorite snack, and all you had was leftovers from dinner, which he hated.  You would at least wish that you could make him understand that sometimes you have to make the best of things, that leftovers are better than nothing, and he would have to do without his (insert favorite snack) this time.  Only, in a restaurant, the issue is usually resolvable.  The man has thrown his tantrum quite before giving anyone the chance to rectify it.  But, let’s even imagine that he has given them a chance to absolve themselves – does a failure to remedy the situation then give him the right to throw his tantrum?  I would argue, no. 
So, going back to our rights, did the man have the “right” to his mustard?  How far can we take that?  He had a right to desire the mustard, I suppose.  I don’t think I can go so far as to say he had an inalienable right to mustard.  But even if he had, nothing can excuse his infantile reactions upon not receiving it.  Discipline is, at the very least, a means of controlling our petty desires, and a means to dignity and grace in the face of misfortune (including the absence of mustard).  How are we to teach our children any self-control or discipline whatsoever, if we cannot graciously accept not always getting our way, even if it is at the incapable hands of others?  But, how are we ever to learn how to do this, except by not getting our way by our OWN hand sometimes?  You cannot expect to be successfully cheerful in the face of disappointment forced upon you, if you have never even disciplined yourself to face some sort of denial when you are in the best of temperaments.  Herein lies my great quandary.  I seem incapable of denial, in most areas.  I have grown into an adult, out of the reach of my parents, and forgotten how to say “No” to myself.  I remember being told “No.”  I was not a coddled child.  How did I grow up into this bundle of appetites waiting to be quenched, with very few scruples about quenching them?  Because it is my nature – my nature to be constantly drifting away from order, like the universe.  It’s easier to drift than to stay.  Discipline requires something of me.  Self-indulgence is easy.  It also grants the illusion of control.  When I am having a bad day, if the only good thing I can control is having a cookie, it seems very tempting, just for the sake of having something good.  It’s hard for me to refuse even if I am not hungry, and even when my palate is really craving something completely different.  Simply because I know cookies to be good, even if it’s not what I want at that moment, it seems, in a sense, like I am “treating myself” or “getting away with something” to have one.  Boy, I showed them.  My point is that self-indulgence seems almost not to be cured by its supposed object.  It seems to want to indulge simply for the sake of indulgence, and not (at least not exclusively) for the pleasure of said object.  I want to indulge, frankly, because I know I can.
Although unintentionally, I have already jumped out of the puddle and into the greater pond of discipline itself, rather than issues it affects.  I don’t remember when I realized that I had become so very lax in refusing myself.  I just observed suddenly one day, that I thought my mother wouldn’t allow me to have so many “cookies” if she were still in charge.  I thought, at that point, (which has been some time ago), that I should perhaps begin exercising my “No” a little more frequently.  I have finally, I think, realized how perfectly lousy I am at it.  I hesitate in writing my next assertions, for I feel the very hypocrisy of writing, but not following them.  However, if men ever only preached of vices they had mastered, there would be few sermons in the world worth listening to.  I firmly believe that I should be able to refuse a temptation (cookie, or otherwise) simply because I know it’s best, based on a rational belief, a moral or a thought, i.e. refusing cookies due to all of the reasons I listed before.  But as stated in the paragraph about the man and the mustard, in order to be able to do this with any consistency, through bad moods and celebrations, when it’s because someone has stolen my cookies or broken them, I must sometimes, refuse myself simply for the sake of practicing refusal.  I have not even mastered “no” in the first scenario, when it is rational, beneficial and desirable, except for in short spurts or when in a pleasant mood.  I certainly haven’t managed it when the conditions are unfavorable. 

Some people manage self-indulgence by removing the temptation.  I recognize some of the rationale behind this method, but would argue against its long-term effectiveness.  If a smoker stops smoking only because there are no cigarettes on his deserted island, is there any virtue in it?  I would assert there is no merit in behaving well simply because the temptation is no longer present, no discipline without something desirable to resist.  My boyfriend taught me this, and even with this example.  He stopped smoking with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.  He believed to quit only because the cigarettes were not available was not really quitting at all.  As soon as he was faced with the temptation in any real sense, he would simply start up again.  I can agree that sometimes the removal of the temptation may be necessary at the start of a discipline, but if the object is not brought back at some point during the training, the lessons will almost decidedly be a failure as soon as the offending vice is reintroduced.  And besides this, sometimes removing the temptation is simply not possible.  I work for a catering company.  Unless I am planning to quit my job, a plethora of sweets will approach me at every turn, nearly every day.  A man struggling with lust cannot realistically remove all women from his sight.  And, so the key has to, at least partially, be a mindset.  I’m not sure quite how to attain this mindset of decision that actually brings about change, but as with my credit card payments, I know I am capable of changing my habits, I just want something outside of myself to make me.  When I decide that I need to “just do it,” in the very well known words of Nike, is when I will.  Clearly, I have not reached this point of illumination in my eating habits.  I do believe, though, that the difficulty is mostly in our minds, and much less so in practice.  It’s the imagined pleasure of the cookie that makes it difficult.  Never mind the fact that it brings approximately 60 seconds of sweetness, the only good part being while it is actually in my mouth.  As soon as that moment is done, I am back to being guilt-ridden at my wantonness.  I think it’s also very important how we perceive temptation.  If I dread going to work because I know I will be faced with my very favorite dessert, and I will have to look at it all day and feel deprived if I don’t eat it, and guilty if I do, then I am certainly going to fail, because I am miserable both ways.  If I feel dejected by having to do without, and I feel dejected to no greater extent when I give in, why not feel dejected, and yet have the sweet as well?  However, if I go to work thinking what a day of challenges I will have, yet another opportunity to strengthen my discipline, to kill my self-indulgence, to beat the Devil, perhaps my fighting spirit will get me through.  This is for me, an encouragement that will strengthen when I already have a basis for refusal, but I know that I cannot solely rely on it, because, my fighting spirit slowly deflates with the wearing drudgery of every day life.  Like a soldier expecting the rigors of battle and the rush of adrenalin, but instead faced with marching interminable fields, growing wearier every slow moment, my fighting man finds that brownies and cakes are no foe worth keeping his morale high enough to win any battles.  “It’s not really worth fighting that hard, is it?” he thinks.  “The enemy is not all that bad.  The real enemy is this job and my headache.  I think a cookie might do me some good after all.”  God forbid there should be more than one enemy at a time.  It is ill fated that a greater enemy, or the one we are feeling the brunt of at a given moment, seems to un-guard us from the dangers of any other.  Temptation, unfortunately, is known to kick you when you are down. 

I alluded above to something that I believe to be quite true.  Self-pity leads to self-indulgence.  Perhaps it is the greatest pre-cursor.  I find that when I am happily working away with no extra troubles on my mind, temptation seems a very feeble thing.  My arrogant heart veritably laughs at the ease of refusing whatever enticement is in front of me, forgetting that yesterday when I was worried about the bills, and didn’t get a good sleep, everything I saw that I knew I should not have was torture – but, not really, because I folded.  I threw in my hand.  I gave in.  This poor, weak muscle, discipline has had no exercise to strengthen it.  Discipline leads to a heart that cannot be swayed – a soul that will not bend to the demands of the terrorism attacking it every day, even when already tired and broken.
 I should broach a subject I have heretofore accidentally avoided.  I have been mistakenly treating discipline as something we use only in the refusal of something negative.  It is something much more, and probably, I have allowed my gloomy representation of it tarnish its beauty already.  Discipline is the only road to most things of any substance that we desire.  Without it, we rarely accomplish one dignified act.  Haven’t you heard the woman say, “I would love to learn how to do that,” and wondered why she didn’t just learn it?  For me, it is, “I want to read more.  I want to write more, paint more, sing more, pray more.  I want to learn Italian.  I want to take more walks.”  What is stopping me?  My self-indulgence, which is really the opposite of self-indulgence; it is self-destruction, inevitably carrying me down a road full of meaningless events, void of achievements that will in any way matter.  It’s the ultimate magic trick – look at the shiny penny of fleeting pleasures while your life is going by in the background.  What of this outside force I am waiting for?  I actually believe it is valid, only not in the sense of Dad pushing us, our teacher scolding us, or our boss giving a deadline.  The only outside Force capable of teaching us discipline itself, is God, Discipline personified.  Everyone else simply gives us a consequence equal to motivation in one specific category lacking discipline. 
In my experience, the effectiveness of the reward or consequence varies in direct proportion to its immediacy and severity.  I know a man with heart trouble who quit smoking not because he had heart trouble, but because every time he smoked a cigarette, it was immediately almost impossible to breathe.  I’ve known a pregnant woman who quit smoking, not in order to protect her baby, but because it made her nauseated.  The consequence worked for them, because it was more immediate, more tangible than the real reason.  I find it difficult to stop eating cookies, because I do not see myself getting fatter each time I take a bite, nor do I see myself get thinner each time I resist.  The rewards and consequences are too long-term, in my state of immaturity, for me to take any notice.   God’s discipline is not dependent on the rewards or the consequences.  I got a taste of this when I was no longer constantly disappointed with my eating habits, and myself, although, as I said, I was shedding no pounds.  As self-indulgence really seeks only the object of indulgence, discipline is its own reward.  As you would tell an addict that quitting for someone else will never last – they must do it for themselves – I will go farther, and say that quitting cannot be enticed in any lasting form by promising thin-ness or sobriety, or at least not in my case.  I suppose I should not speak for the world.  We’ve already seen that when I am perfectly aware that the results of discipline far outweigh the pleasure of self-indulgence, I have still failed.  Discipline exists for Discipline’s sake, for God’s sake, and comes with a package of many consequential rewards.  It is a small picture of what God means when He says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.”  Seek discipline, and you will gain its rewards; seek its rewards, and you will gain nothing.  I think that some will doubt this assertion, but look at it this way: If a child makes his bed every day because he is afraid of the whipping he gets if he does not, you don’t call him disciplined, you call him scared.  Along the same lines, if a child makes his bed every day because he gets a dollar when he does so, you don’t call him disciplined, you call him greedy, or maybe just a miniature tycoon…but never disciplined.  Any act performed or omitted in order to receive an award or escape a punishment, has little virtue of its own.   Following this train of thought, I am not sure how to teach discipline as something to be learned for its own sake.  If we take the consequences and rewards away, there is very little to teach us with.  Perhaps as creatures of habit, when we have made our bed enough times and received enough dollars, and not made our bed enough and received enough whippings, discipline will begin to whisper its true nature to us.  Could it be that we learn it by going through the motions?  That at first we simply do it for the rewards and to escape the punishment, but then, just maybe we will begin to seek it, to seek God, and will finally begin to triumph.   I recently babysat two sisters, three and five years old.  The mother was still at home, and the girls asked if they could have a piece of gum.  The five year old has apparently been successfully chewing and then spitting her gum out for quite some time.  The three year old still has some issues with swallowing it as soon as she is bored with its novelty.  The mother told the three year old that if she did NOT swallow her gum when she was done with it, she would get a nickel.  The five year old asked if she got a nickel for not swallowing hers.  The mother said, “No, your reward is that you get to keep chewing gum.”  The five year old had learned the purpose of gum – that it is to be chewed and spit out.  The three year old had not yet figured out that you cannot treat gum as you treat food, because that is not what it is for.  But she understood nickels.  The reward/consequence system is used in order to teach us the purpose of a discipline.  For example, “No, you cannot treat food as an activity.  It’s for your nourishment…oh, wait, but you can’t treat it as a security blanket either.  It will not keep you warm or comfortable, and it will also make you overweight.  That’s not what it’s for.  Or, “No, you cannot treat lust as you would treat an itch, scratching whenever, wherever, and in whatever manner the impulse strikes.  That’s not what it’s for.”  The reward is rarely the purpose of the discipline being learned – one would never tell the little boy that the purpose of making your bed is to receive a dollar.  The purpose is to be neat.  The incentive is the dollar.  Once we understand the purpose of any given discipline, in theory, we should no longer need the reward/consequence system, just like the little girl with her gum.  She didn’t need the nickel; she already had it down.  Her reward was enjoying her gum.  Or as C. S. Lewis states it in The Weight of Glory, “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”  I never understood that statement before.  Our reward for discipline, once we understand the purpose of the issue in connection with it, is that we get to enjoy the thing we used to abuse and extort; enjoy it in the manner it was meant to be enjoyed.   I think I just recognized the story of The Prodigal Son in that anecdote.  I never noticed that it was about discipline before.  It seems that discipline can get jealous when its new members are rewarded for their small achievements – when they are fussed over for their baby-steps.  The three year old gets a nickel for doing something the five year old has been doing for simply ages; the run-away son gets a party upon his return when the elder has been faithful all the while.  The trick to facing this with grace is in understanding that the nickel and the party are like dog treats for training a pup.  They are given because they are the tools by which any actual knowledge is taught, only used when real understanding is lacking.  To want to go back to the reward system would be like going down a grade even though you passed with flying colors.  God treating us like this would be like a parent still screaming with delight every time their 10 year old spoke, as if it were their first word.  Why should we ever progress any further if the prizes are so easily won?  Discipline is about learning to do what is right, regardless of consequence or reward.  God slowly weans us from these, like a bottle from a baby, but the goal is right for righteousness sake.I said above that once we understood the purpose of a discipline, we should no longer need the reward/consequence system.  I think I left something out.  We can thoroughly understand the purpose of food, and not care a whit.  We must understand the value of the purpose.  A teenager with an unstoppable metabolism does not understand the value of nourishment and eating right.  He may understand all of the concepts, but until he grasps the value, he is not even halfway there.  I understand that the purpose of making my bed every day is to be neat, but if I do not value neatness, then the likelihood of my making my bed is very small.    I wish I could truly recognize that all of the things that would create any sense of accomplishment in me, all of the things that would make me more of who I believe God created me to be, are possible only in discipline.  Anything that would in any way have far-reaching effects beyond myself requires discipline.  But my self-indulgence tells me that I’m tired and, just tonight, I should watch TV and relax.  I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to relax, right?  The problem is that it isn’t really relaxing.  It is giving in more to the idea that I don’t matter.  I might as well watch TV because I have nothing to contribute.  It’s a desire to shut off your brain (that I do not condemn, because I am fighting it this moment, have been fighting it all day while writing this essay!), to forget that the world exists, that you exist, to turn in responsibility for apathy.  I should clarify that I do not think TV itself evil.  I also understand the need to let your brain relax, rest, process the things you haven’t had the time to glance at.  My words here are based on my own experience, that TV does not soothe my spirit.  If I am seeking rest, TV has never been the place I am able to find it.  I do find that as soon as I press the OFF button, all of the things I was trying to forget come rushing back on me with no relief.  If I take some time, pray, meditate on God’s Word, and give Him a little chance to sort out my thoughts, then I feel I have used my time wisely, and I even feel more relaxed.

Self-indulgence offers me many options of things that are easy to begin, but I almost always regret them when I am done.  Sometimes, I don’t even regret them for they are too transient for regret.  Sometimes, I don’t even remember them.  That is what self-indulgence gives me.  Discipline asks of me things that are difficult to begin, but once I have begun them, I am always glad of it, proud of it.  Those things change me – move me.  They matter.  That is the gift of discipline.