This is a good time of year to reflect on appetites. They are part of our primal make-up and crucial for our survival of course. Without the basic appetites of hunger and procreation we wouldn’t be around long. But other kinds of appetites drive our lives as well: the appetite of ambition, the desire to explore and create, to change what is around us, the appetite for upward mobility. They say, in fact, that our species is defined by its dominating and aggressive appetites and this, I suppose, is why we scurry about so.
But problems arise when our appetites come to dominate our activity and shape our lives. Food becomes a daily obsession. Sex becomes a preoccupation. In our ambition we harm and devalue others. We spend our time in efforts to gratify appetites rather than pursue nobler goals. The appetites quickly wind up running the show unless we restrain them. The odd thing about them is that the more we feed them the stronger they become. The opposite also seems to be true; the more we deny them the weaker their hold on us.
All religions teach that the control of one’s appetites is necessary to grow close to God. Buddhism says desire is the root of all human suffering. Just stop wanting and you’ll stop the pain and causing so much harm around you. Jesus didn’t actually say much about our appetites but I think he would have agreed with the Buddha. Jesus did often speak of how the life of excess will catch us out and rob us of our future joy (remember the man with the barns in Luke?). Paul took a stiffer line, talking about the lusts of the flesh and their dangers, forbidding Christians to indulge them.
My hobby is snacking my way through the evening. That is how I unwind and find pleasure after a hard day at work. But lately we’ve been on a 3-week detox at my house. Now, I’ve never been much of a hand at self-denial. A colleague once gave me a little statue with “Most Likely to Exceed” at the base. And, on the whole, I’d rather go to the dentist than go on a diet. But for now it is no red meat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, wheat, or caffeine. Fortunately it only lasts for a few weeks! (It is amazing how well we are eating, but I’m about bok-choyed and wild riced out) It has been really interesting to confront my appetites and their powerful hold on me. To deny them is tough. They are bullies, and good ones. But taking this time to challenge them has been like hitting the reset button on my inner life. I find the bullies are much tamer as the weeks go by.
I guess the art of the life is living moderately in the middle of our appetites, neither totally denying them nor over-indulging. In his essay “Of Moderation” Montaigne quotes an old adage: “The archer who overshoots the target misses as much as the one who does not reach it.” There are times, such as the contemplation of a lifestyle reassessment for the New Year, when taming our appetites has a lot of value. By resisting them our desires become our teacher and show us how our habits have bent to the will of our appetites. Yes, it is a good time to consider appetites.
Dave Neale is a life-long educator, dean and lecturer in New Testament. He is the Director of Campus Manitoba at Brandon University. Dave and his wife Christine have two sons and 5 grandchildren.