I recently came across a reference to Daniel Akst’s new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. I read about it on Marginal Revolution, but you can see the NYT review HERE.
That we live in an age of excess, characterized by a lack of self-control, is hardly disputable. Mr. Akst notes that in America alone literally millions of people die prematurely as a result of smoking, drinking, overeating and physical inactivity. And as I have pointed out repeatedly on this blog, these poor lifestyle decisions don’t just kill the people who make them, they burden the health care system and the rest of society, who end up bearing much of the cost to treat these people. In some cases there is a moral stigma attached to folks who do not exercise self-control, such as smokers, alcholics and drug addicts. Yet for the millions of people who run up debts they can’t pay buying things they don’t need, or who ruin their health by overeating and inactivity, there is little if any moral stigma attached. Few in our culture would consider an obese, debt-ridden compulsive shopper to be “immoral.”
But, being the Bible nerd that I am, when I read the blurb about Mr. Akst’s book, my mind went to what the Bible has to say about self-control and the absence of self-control.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he listed “self-control” as among the “fruit of the Spirit,” along with love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and forebearance.
Proverbs 25:28 says “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”
But probably the harshest thing the Bible has to say about a lack of self control (and the verse which came to my mind when reading about the book) is found in the second letter to Timothy:
But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
On one level this seems to strike at the root of what it means to lack self-control, by associating an absence of self-control with love of self and love of pleasure (and a corresponding absence of love for the good). But while on one level a life of twinkies, cigarettes, beer and television may reflect a love of self and pleasure, on another level it reflects just the opposite. Given that those choices for some temporary sensual pleasure destroy the person’s health and eventually take back far more pleasure than they give, no thoughtful person can honestly think he is serving his own self interest and pleasures by such a lack of self-control.
So why do folks do it? Why do so many people choose not to exercise self-control?
I don’t think there is a simple answer. Lots of reasons come to mind. We live in a culture saturated with advertising designed to encourage destructive lifestyle choices. There is little if any moral stigma attached to overconsumption. We have so many labor saving devices that physical activity is increasingly unnecessary. We’ve created social safety nets that prevent folks from feeling the full impact of their bad choices (I know a woman who is receiving government disability income payments because she’s gotten too fat to hold a job, for example). To a large extent the problem is just plain ignorance. Way too many people don’t even realize that the stuff they’re eating and drinking is ruining their health, or that they’ll never possibly be able to repay the credit card debts they’re running up.
But I wonder if the primary reason for the lack of self-control in our society isn’t just a plain old lack of discipline. Choosing to eat a candy bar instead of an apple. Choosing to buy something on credit rather than waiting until the money is there. Choosing to lay on the couch and watch TV rather than go for a walk. These are just choices, like every other choice we make. Like the choice to earn a living by working rather than by stealing. Like the choice to tell the truth rather than to lie. Maybe we just need to stop making excuses and stop refusing to call it what it is.
Maybe we just need to exercise self control.