In its early forms, Christianity assumed that the vast majority of us were hell-bound. Heaven was a wonderful place but apparently, admittance was restricted to only a few. Despite the odds, all were welcome to aspire to get into heaven. In addition to demonstrating regular religious fealty, you also had to not only not sin, but to also avoid the near occasion of sins. A certain amount of sin was tacitly understood to come with being born a human being, hence the doctrine of original sin. You could seek forgiveness for your sins from your local priest but likely you would go back to sinning later that day. In short, living the virtuous life is hard because it requires, well, lots and lots of virtue and we apparently are not born with much of it.
After the Reformation, a kinder and gentler version of Christianity slowly emerged. Today depending on your denomination, you are now more likely to be told that you will into heaven, providing you do not do anything too egregious in the eyes of God. I have no opinion about the reality of an afterlife (although I have my suspicions), since it is too detached from my reality. As a Unitarian Universalist, the Universalist side of me tends to agree with early Christian Universalists. As early as the third century, they believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant that everyone got a “Get into Heaven Free” card. However, the skeptical part of me thinks that the Heaven as conventionally imagined by Christians is so remote as to be laughable.
Looking at my own behavior as well as most of my fellow humans’, I think most of us are genetically programmed toward self-destruction. That most of us do not wholly succumb is something of a miracle. Ironically, the way we fail is by modeling our life as heaven here on earth. In heaven, for example, you can eat as many virtual Dunkin Donuts as you want yet never gain weight. Unfortunately, if we succumb to those donuts cravings here on earth we quickly gain weight. If we continue to indulge our donut eating habit then like Homer Simpson we end up with a much larger version of ourselves to love. We spend our fifties (if we make it that far) dealing with complications of our obesity.
I have never smoked. Nonetheless, while I suspect it is a habit hard to acquire, I doubt once acquired that I could really give it up permanently. For similar reasons I have avoided drugs and alcohol. There are virtues in being abstemious, but where we exercise self-restraint in one area, we tend to let lose it in others. Like most of us Americans, my principle weakness is food. Exercise does help control my weight. Yet it seems that my desire for more food will always exceed my desire to exercise. Managing the battle of my bulge is likely to be my lifelong challenge.
I think that all but a tiny few of us are driven toward self-destructive urges. Call it the side effects of prosperity, blame bad parenting, call it a natural human weakness; the effect seems to be true. If you can have more of something that you desire, you will fight your natural desire to have more of it. Any craving can be a sign of your own self-destructive tendencies. A craving does not come from our forebrain. It comes from some older part of our brain that tells us, “You got to live for the moment, baby! Feast on the spoils of victory!” Just as emotions tend to overrule intellect, our cravings tend have the upper hand. They impel us toward making choices that if we wholly gave into them would probably kill us.
I once remarked how the beautiful are a different species. As I ascend up the office ladder I am noticing something else: the further up the ladder you go, the more thin and healthy people I find. A good example is our first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Love her or loathe her she is thin, healthy and attractive. A Washington Post columnist some time ago documented a luncheon that she recently attended. In addition to very correctly saying the right words and smiling in her surreal omnipresent manner, Ms. Pelosi was presented with a lunch that she never ate. Reputedly, she sipped from her iced tea.
A few weeks ago, I was on a business trip in Tallahassee. A boss two levels above me went with me. Like Ms. Pelosi, she is nice, professional and personable. She is also skinny as a rail. She is empowered to make decisions that to me seem very large. She makes policy. I manage people. All week long, she joined us for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like Ms. Pelosi, she mostly picked at all her meals. She was aghast when we went to a barbeque joint. The slab of meat she received was more than she consumes in a week. She did not eat much of it.
Maybe we promote these people because they seem capable of self-control that the rest of us do not possess. We figure that if they can avoid the vices of food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs and general obesity, they must have the right stuff to lead. By inference then, the rest of us mere mortals do not seem to have that right stuff.
The reality is that these people while pleasant and unusually competent in their own right, are also very, very rare. They are the types likely to see their hundredth birthday. The reality is that they are lucky more than virtuous. For whatever reason, their temptation gene was recessive. They have levels of natural self-control the rest of us will never have. No wonder we are anxious to mate with them.
As for the rest of us, we must fight our vices every day. For us, our vices are lifelong struggles. For example, we can say that we will give up pleasures like smoking or eating junk foods. We can say that we will do an hour of aerobics every day. Those of us who can actually move from our natural predisposition into a lifelong change of lifestyle are very rare. Our cravings will continue to try to possess us. At best, we can hope that we can substitute less destructive cravings to replace them. Even if we do, our successes are likely to be transitory. For most of us, lifelong behavioral changes are virtually impossible.
Consequently, I figure I will never be in a policy making position. I am not skinny enough, which thus suggests to those who can promote me (who coincidentally are often skinny) that I do not have the maturity to act responsibly at that level. I may have more self-control than most human beings do, for which I should be grateful. One of the reasons I admire Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (personally, not politically) is that he succeeded in changing his own personally destructive habits. Mike used to be extremely obese. He lost over one hundred pounds. He did it without weight loss surgery, without a gastric bypass and without even liposuction. He succeeded by eating less and exercising more. He gives every appearance of being a man who can forever change his own patterns of personal destruction. Therefore, I have to admire him. I think, “What’s the worst that this guy could do if he were elected as president?” He clearly has some sort of magic power that I do not.
As for me and I suspect all but a handful of you reading this, we are among the damned. The good news is that we have plenty of company. Whatever our vices are, expect them to persist. They will persist like that spot on your back that you cannot quite reach but never really stops itching. You might develop strategies that will succeed in keeping them at abeyance, or that mitigate the impact of your vices. Perhaps like Barack Obama you will chew nicotine gum all day to avoid lighting up a cigarette. Nevertheless, your body will continue to crave that which you deny yourself. Moreover, it will do its damnedest to trip you up. Like Satan himself, do not expect the force to relent.
Perhaps it is time to go to church and utter an earnest prayer for yourself. Most of us will have to hope for that miracle because, frankly, it is unlikely to arrive.