A few days ago, Kate Wicker posted a wonderful piece on choosing “growth” to be her word for 2011. I loved reading it because I identify so much with Kate; so many of the things that she said were so familiar. But I winced while reading it, because all the while I knew that “growth” would indeed not be my word for 2011. I knew that my word for 2011 is the same word that I should have held up as an ideal in 2010, and 2009, and 2008, and 2007, and 2006. Before then I wouldn’t have understood what the word meant, let alone all the implications of it. But after five solid years of making tiny changes while mostly trying to ignore this one, big, looming word, it is upon me.
No. It’s been upon me. This year, I’m choosing to embrace it. This year, I will cultivate the virtue of temperance.
In thinking about temperance, what springs immediately to mind is my weight. The Ever-Teacher has a thing about people’s weight; he’s forever asking us if we’re doing what we need to be doing to take ourselves on when one of us kids or kids-in-law happens to put on a few pounds. At first it really annoyed me; it felt obsessive and obnoxious. Now, I understand what he’s trying to point out; that being overweight is a result (most of the time) of a lack of temperance in our lives. He jumps on the weight, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly, because that is the most visible symbol of our interior life of virtue.
It’s taken me five years to admit to myself that, in fact, I’m overweight because I like brownies. Notice the plural? It’s not brownie; it’s brownies.
We’ll go on kicks when I’ll ban sugar from the house and go running every morning. It’ll last a few months, and then something will happen. A trip away, a new baby, a total emotional breakdown, and I’ll go to Trader Joe’s and eat my way through a box of chocolates. Then I’ll feel so bad that I’ll keep buying chocolate, and cheese, and white bread, and butter and butter and butter, all the while ignoring the simple fundamental truth that these aren’t bad foods and I’m not bad for buying or eating them…just like I’m not good when we’ve got only whole grains and lean meats in the fridge and I’m hitting the pavement with a vengeance.
It would be good if I could eat butter in moderation, and go running in moderation. It would be good if I could bring a balance to my life, instead of forever bending Aristotle’s stick too far in either direction.
But it isn’t just my weight that needs the soothing balm of restraint. My family needs it, too. Just today the Ogre and I got into a minor tussle which I managed to blow incredibly out of proportion because of the terrible way I handled it. First, I got mad. I yelled and he yelled back. Then, after a solid hour of self-pity, I came to the realization that I am a terrible, horrible wife. So I apologized…again and again. And again. And he got mad, because I wasn’t apologizing out of genuine remorse, I was apologizing so that he would forgive me, so that I would feel better.
I can’t keep doing this to either of us. As it turns out, my frequent blow-ups and whiplash-inducing apologies and tears aren’t the result of being high-strung, or spirited, or even of having a nasty temper, all of which are terms often used to excuse away the simple and undeniable fact that I don’t control myself. I haven’t practiced the virtue of restraint in the hours of calm, so when the storm hits there’s no reserve to be drawn on. My emotions are raw and unrestrained, and the people I love most in this world are the ones who pay for it.
And they don’t just pay for it when I get angry. I can’t count the number of times I’ll say to Sienna, “No, you can’t have any chocolate until after lunch” and then put a piece of chocolate in my own mouth as soon as she happens to look away. Children aren’t stupid. She sees my hypocrisy and often doesn’t take me seriously when I say “no,” turning instead to whining and begging. It isn’t often that I give in, but it still happens. And throughout all of this what is most apparent is my own lack of temperance. I eat the chocolate when I’ve asked her not to; I give in because I don’t want to listen to her whine. There must be a reconciliation here. Either I must be more temperate in what I ask, and say, “why don’t we split a small piece now so we still have room in our tummies for lunch?”, or I must say, “no, and Mommy won’t have any either, because it’s important for us both to eat a good lunch.” And then I need to stick to it, in the face of whatever comes my way.
And for that, I’ll need fortitude.
Isn’t it funny how the natural virtues are so intertwined? Seeking to improve the virtue of temperance will inevitably lead to an increase in practicing fortitude, justice and prudence.
In any case, temperance is without a doubt the word that I will be keeping in mind in 2011. No grand plans for a diet or exercise regimen this year; no big, sweeping vows to “be a better wife” or to “be a more patient mother”. This year I’ll start with the little things. The little, oft-overlooked virtues that, when practiced, change everything.