Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Renunciation

Mothers in nineteenth-century fiction are usually dead. On the rare occasion that they manage to survive their daughters’ infancy, their presence is a mixed blessing at best. Case in point: Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Her lapses of good taste and good judgment are legendary (and they amply prove that parents had been embarrassing their children for centuries before the invention of mommy-blogs). A typical example of her foolishness occurs when Lydia departs for her ill-advised (and, in the event, disastrous) journey to Brighton. Her mother’s parting words are laughable; as Austen describes it, "Mrs. Bennet was diffuse in her good wishes for the felicity of her daughter, and impressive in her injunctions that she would not miss the opportunity of enjoying herself as much as possible; advice, which there was every reason to believe would be attended to."

Instead of parenting her daughter, leading her on the difficult path to self-discipline and wisdom, Mrs. Bennet lives vicariously through her, finding in Lydia’s flirtations a gratifying reminder of her own youthful beauty and predilection for red-coated suitors.

This is not a mistake my own mother has ever made. Self-denial is one of her favourite virtues, and when she dropped by the house yesterday, the sight of my long-neglected Conair foot-massager prompted her to make this remark: "You just need to give up on enjoying yourself!"

While this advice is laudably distinct from Mrs. Bennet’s foolish words, I believe it is equally misguided. To be fair to my mother, I don’t think it was my possession of an unused Conair foot-massager that led to her warning against my hedonistic path to destruction. Moments earlier, Bub had caught me with my mouth full and had responded with several unsolicited announcements that "Mama’s eating CHOCK-WIT! Mama’s eating CHOCK-WIT!" The effort of not responding to this news with a lecture on nutrition had clearly eroded my mother’s defences, and the internal pressure caused by the un-given lecture erupted eventually in a blanket ban against all enjoyment.

To be sure, enjoying oneself is not the primary purpose of life. Indeed, I consider enjoying myself to be the fuel that allows me to do the other things I want or need to do in life. A good episode of Lost refuels me so that I can muster the energy to teach my classes the next day. The promise of a few freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, hot out of the oven, adds a few extra feet of rope to my short and quickly-fraying temper during supper and bath-time. An evening out at Starbucks with friends sets me up for a weekend of marking essays while the children nap.

I might go so far as to say that I consider enjoying myself to be a duty. Nonetheless, the virtues of the ascetic life are preached by more people than just my mother: there is a genuine tension between the psychological need for self-indulgence and the broader social realities that ask us to be more disciplined, more self-denying. It used to be that renunciation was the province of Roman Catholicism, which raised it to an art in monasteries peopled by ascetics with flayed backs and hair shirts. Fast forward a few centuries, and now environmentalism has assumed the ascetic mantle, exhorting people to want less, to consume less, to take up less space on the earth. This argument is not only scientific – it is also strangely appealing. There has always been an unexpected pleasure in the renunciation of pleasure.

This is the pleasure my mother would like me to find in food. A lifetime of reading about nutrition, combined with a vivid imagination, has rendered my mother incapable of enjoying saturated fat. She can actually visualize the fat deposits forming on her arteries, and the idea makes her ill. On the other hand, she does derive real enjoyment from eating ten vegetables a day. She admires the vivid yellow of a crisp bell pepper, the lycopene-red of the tomatoes in her lentil-barley soup. She mixes up cabbage, garlic, and lentils for lunch and eats it on whole-grain toast with an organic blueberry-yogourt smoothie and a good book. Duty and pleasure are one for her: she doesn’t reward herself for good behaviour with an otherwise forbidden indulgence – instead, the good behaviour is her indulgence.

I recognize the value of her approach, but so far that hasn’t altered my hedonistic ways. I sneak a few chocolates when I think my mother isn’t looking; I model for my children a different solution to the problem of balancing self-indulgence with self-denial.

And that, of course, is the scary part: not only do I have to weigh and balance my needs with those of others, and those of the earth, but I have to figure out that balance for my children as well. It’s my job to provide them with opportunities to enjoy themselves, to show them that they are worthy of laughter and joy – and it’s also my job to teach them self-discipline, renunciation, and wisdom. No wonder I need a good cookie now and then.

26 comments:

Andrea said...

I think environmentalism has a bad rap on the renunciation front--the idea isn't to renounce pleasure, but stuff. Hopefully the stuff one renounces will be replaced by other joys which will bring as much or more pleasure.

Mouse said...

And it should be pointed out that science is now pointing to the benefits of chocolate, especially the really stout, dark stuff. One of our indulgences is getting a really good bar of dark chocolate that is some combination of free trade, organic, or otherwise socially responsible--good for us, good for the planet, good for the growers. I feel obligated not to give up my chocolate habit.

Sober Briquette said...

Somehow, I think you will succeed in showing them the MANY aspects of joy in this life. You seem to set an admirable example.

Jenifer G. said...

I am definitely more like you in that my 'good" behaviour is much more likely to bring on something not so good as a reward. A healthy dinner means I can have cookies and tea later in front of my favorurite show.

I do agree with Andrea's point though about environmentalism and to much "stuff". I have just read Peter Walsh's (TLC's Clean Sweep organizing guru) book on clutter (a post is brewing I think) and he cites clutter and "stuff" for making our houses, bodies, minds, and spirits clogged and unhealthy.

Clearing out or renouncing the stuff allows us to find joy -whatever that means to you under the mountains of clutter.
*******************
I think those small indulgences, mine are usually a nice latte or just time alone; are what refuel me and give me the mental energy to keep going a while longer.

Give them up? Never.

Mimi said...

Uh oh, renunciation, mothers, and nineteenth century ninnies all in the same post.

But what about Fanny Price? I'm just rereading Mansfield Park, and Fanny's self-negation is absolutely *irritating*.

It's true though that now I see my own pleasures and indulgences through the sharp lens of the example I give my family: my indulgences don't seem to justifiabale any more, but neither am I willing to give them up.

And so, like a good catholic, I just feel really guilty and eat my cupcakes in secret. ummmmmm, cupcakes.

LIB said...

In the sermon Sunday, our Pastor mentioned how important recreation is. "I don't think it's unimportant that the word is 'reCREATION'. Some of you tend to be workaholics--for you it's a sin NOT to recreate."

Lisa b said...

cabbage, garlic and lentils?
I'll take your path to anyday.

Beck said...

Ah, the modern world, where a human's moral fiber is judged by the amount of fiber in their diets. My mother is a big fan of self-renunciation of pleasure, which causes such a revolt in me that I'm just lucky I'm not a 300 pound drug addict.

Mayberry said...

How perfect for Ash Wednesday, of which I have spent most arguing with myself over whether or not I will fast. I have finally come to the conclusion that all this guilt and self-doubt, along with the hunger and the headache it has induced, is enough misery for me to have suitably observed the day. And that if I don't eat something, I'll never survive the arsenic hour that is fast approaching.

NotSoSage said...

"The effort of not responding to this news with a lecture on nutrition had clearly eroded my mother’s defences, and the internal pressure caused by the un-given lecture erupted eventually in a blanket ban against all enjoyment." Made me laugh out loud. You're way more understanding than I am.

Also a good (lapsed) Catholic, I model good eating in front of my daughter and then sneak chocolate while she's asleep and feel terribly guilty afterwards. And Joe is absolutely no help whatsoever.

bubandpie said...

Andrea - I think all renunciation has a bad rap: there are many pleasurable vices that we will be all the better (healthier AND happier) for giving up. But change is hard - it still feels like renunciation before we get to the other side of it. Some kinds of change do produce an immediate pay-off of pleasure, though (as Jenifer pointed out) - getting rid of STUFF can be very freeing.

Mayberry - What does it say about me that I forgot all about the fact that it was Ash Wednesday when I wrote this post (even though I had no trouble remembering that it was pancake Tuesday yesterday, when I was slathering maple syrup over my chocolate-chip pancakes)?

Pieces said...

"blanket ban against all enjoyment"--a great line.

The older I get the more I believe that our time on earth is just to learn moderation. Sometimes the thing that is the most self-sacrificing is to let go and just enjoy oneself. When I simply enjoy my kids and cut loose with them I feel like a much better mother than if I am pinched and instructing all the time.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Your post resonates with one I am working on for Sunday. I find it odd and a little disturbing that our understanding of pleasure now requires it to be secret and furtive like a vice instead of communal and shared.

Mad Hatter said...

Have I told you this story? At the height of my potato chip late-afternoon stress fix* last fall, Miss M, who was just getting language at the time, started calling potato chips, "all gones" because she'd catch me eating them and I would hurriedly try to put them away and explain myself out of a corner so that she wouldn't get hooked on them too. I have since switched to baked tortilla chips and we share them as a snack--a little vice for us both and a pleasure well-savoured.

* ya, I read that post and still don't know if I need commas here.

Lady M said...

"she doesn’t reward herself for good behaviour with an otherwise forbidden indulgence – instead, the good behaviour is her indulgence."

Fascinating. There are some (few) areas in my life that are like that - organization things. Definitely not food, but I'm working on being a better eating example for Q though.

"to show them that they are worthy of laughter and joy" - excellent phrase.

c4cara said...

What a subject. Bring on the chocolate. I'm a little inclined to the self-denial myself, but I know it can be fatal, and I'm always swinging back and forth between 'Must be a better mother and do more for my children' and 'Must take better care of my self and have some fun, or I will go mad and become a horrible person'. But there's this subtle thing has happened from having so much pressure on my time and energy. Now I get masses of enjoyment out of small things. Like today, when I had 20 chores to do in half a day, but I was alone, and didn't have to stop every 5 minutes to explain something or help someone. Just 'working' by myself felt great. (though I still felt a little martyred at how much I had to do *grin*). Reading a book undisturbed for an hour. Almost more than I can stand. Recent 'day spa' thing... Way way too much...
I'm not interested in getting any tougher on myself...
I do love that word though.. Renunciation...

Oh, The Joys said...

I love that all you really need in the end is a cookie.

(((((cookies)))))

bubandpie said...

Mad - I feel sure that the comma is unnecessary there, but I don't know why because I can't figure out what exactly "last fall" is doing in that sentence. Is it part of an understood adjective clause ("which occurred last fall")? In that case, one would think the commas would be necessary, since the understood clause is clearly non-restrictive. Or do those words simply function as adjectives, providing more information about the height of the potato-chip stress fix?

If you were to rearrange the elements of the sentence to read, "Last fall, at the height of my potato-chip late-afternoon stress fix, Miss M..." then the comma would indeed be necessary after fall, because both "Last fall" and "at the height..." would be functioning as adverbs modifying "started calling." "Last fall" is specific, and "at the height..." provides descriptive information; when you reverse them, though, "last fall" becomes more essential to the sentence, identifying specifically the period of time you have described in the prepositional phrase "at the height..."

But now I'm applying the rules for appositive phrases to something that is clearly NOT an appositive phrase.

You know what? I'm just going to call "last fall" a mildly parenthetical interjection - and mildly parenthetical interjections do not require commas.

(Phew. Cranial explosion narrowly averted.)

Becky said...

Tell your mother that "chock-wit" is good for you! It's full of antioxidants and can help prevent stroke! (Especially the dark variety.)

;o)

Heather said...

Oh, just in time for Lent.

Indulgence/renunciation. This is such a hard balance for me to figure out too.
I think with little ones the secret stuffing of chocolate is a pretty common practice. Oh for the day I can enjoy a brownie sunday with my teenager...it just wouldn't do us any good to share it with the two year old!

Here's a book you might find interesting about this subject as it relates to the environment and our world community. It's called Simpler Living, Compassionate Life compiled and edited by Michael Schut.

It's a compilation of essays by different Christians of various denominational backgrounds and various fields of study. They explore the notion of a simple life.

Mad Hatter said...

Thank you. It all goes to show that I am still striving to be a better writer.

nomotherearth said...

When it comes to food, I've learnt the hard way that total denial of the non-nutritive foods is the wrong approach. I'm working on a way to incorporate them into my daily diet without over-indulging. It's hard, because chocolate is my Achilles heel.

My mom denied us "sugar cereals", but that was about it. She liked chocolate and sweets too. To her credit, I don't like sugar cereals for breakfast at all. Too sweet. But I have been know to snack on Count Chocula in the afternoon.

BooMama said...

I clicked over here because I keep running across the name of your blog here, there and everywhere.

Now I understand why.

And yes, this post is the perfect accompaniment to Ash Wednesday. Not to mention Pancake Tuesday.

Kristi said...

Mrs. Bennett = Dina Lohan

Whoring daughters out Victorian style.

Rock the Cradle said...

A wonderful post, B&P. I think reaching a balance of indulgence and renunciation is a life long pursuit. We need to be weak occasionally, in order to recognize more fully when we are strong.

So bring on the chocolate, and hold the extra butter and salt on that potato. No problem. Right?

It is so hard to remember sometimes that we are all "worthy of laughter and joy"

This is my quest: to every evening remember at least one time that day I laughed.

Her Bad Mother said...

I think that it is entirely possible to model moderation (temperance, in the classical sense) and a robust, sensual enjoyment of what the earth, the world, has to offer. Socrates, here, being much more instructive that the Mrs. Bennets of the world...