I’ve been writing about the seven deadly sins, using as my basis the book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung. I’m especially interested in how these harmful habits manifest themselves in those of us who are past midlife. This post is on gluttony.
The term gluttony is derived from the Latin gluttire, meaning to gulp down or swallow. It’s essence is not primarily centered in how much we eat but in how much pleasure we take in eating. The glutton is overly focused on achieving maximal pleasure; he or she is looking to be satisfied. Gluttony tries to achieve ultimate fulfillment from food and drink, things that are only capable of providing partial and temporary fulfillment. As DeYoung points out, excessively seeking such satisfactions has spiritual consequences:
“Satisfying our desire for the pleasure of eating doesn’t ‘fill up’ the whole person. Our spiritual desires are left empty. If we leave those desires unfilled long enough, we tend to lose sight of them and become overly preoccupied with only physical desires in an escalating and futile cycle of avoiding spiritual starvation by indulging ourselves physically.”
So gluttony is detrimental to our spirits, depriving them of needed sustenance. It is also detrimental to our bodies, in that habitually choosing foods on the basis of how much pleasure they will provide can negatively impact our health. Such health problems lead many of us who are older to be more cautious about what we consume than we were when the bodily effects weren’t as immediate or clear-cut. Thus, superficially at least, the eating behavior of older adults may give less evidence of gluttony than that of younger adults. This may be misleading, though. As mentioned above, gluttony primarily concerns not what we eat but what motivates our eating. Do we put too much emphasis on the pleasure of eating, even if we choose healthy foods and don’t consume too much? Are our lives centered around our appetites or around loving God and others?
Gluttonous eating can take a variety of forms. St. Gregory the Great parsed them as follows:
“The vice of gluttony tempts us in five ways. Sometimes it forestalls the hour of need; sometimes it seeks costly meats; sometimes it requires the food to be daintily cooked; sometimes it exceeds the measure of refreshment by taking too much; sometimes we sin by the very heat of an immoderate appetite.”
In the middle ages, these various forms of eating were described as eating too hastily, too sumptuously, too daintily, too much, and too greedily. Emily Stimpson Chapman, author of The Catholic Table, succinctly summarizes these as follows: “we commit the sin of gluttony when we eat before we’re hungry (hastily); when we regularly or exclusively dine on only the most expensive and richest foods (sumptuously); when we overeat (too much); when we take more than our fair share (greedily); and when we insist upon eating only certain foods or refuse foods not grown, prepared or served in specific ways (daintily).”
Perhaps we older adults aren’t as prone as we once were to eat too much, but that still leaves plenty of other ways to manifest gluttony. For me, eating hastily–when I’m not hungry–is probably the biggest temptation. Usually that happens when I’m bored or restless. Some older adults eat too sumptuously. They can afford to buy the best and do so on a regular basis, often at expensive restaurants where a single meal can cost what someone could eat well on for a week. Among our ranks are also plenty of dainty eaters, those who are overly fastidious about what they consume. Such fastidiousness is not limited to those who desire to eat something exquisite. DeYoung quotes a passage from C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters concerning an old woman who turns down whatever her hostess offers, sighing:
“Oh please, please . . . all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teaniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.”
Because what she wants isn’t costly or unusual, she can’t see how she is controlled by (and in turn seeks to control others in the service of) getting exactly what she wants, even if it is disruptive for others.
If we want to avoid the various forms of gluttony, what guidelines should we follow when we eat? DeYoung cites Augustine’s dictum that we eat whatever and however much we want as long as we eat in a way appropriate to our health, to our community, and to our vocation. Older adults are most used to focusing on the first of these, eating in ways that promote our health. What about the other two?
Younger adults often have as their eating community a family that includes children, so consideration of the needs of the community means making sure that the children get enough food, have healthy choices, and have good eating modeled for them. We older adults are less likely to eat with children and may give less thought to community, but that is probably a mistake. Whomever we eat with, it is good to focus on the ways in which serving food to others and being served by them is a primary way of showing and receiving caring or concern. Even those of us who often eat alone can be community-oriented. For example, we can think of the needs of the hungry throughout the world and how the food choices of the well-to-do affect the poor’s access to adequate nutrition.
What about eating in light of our vocation? DeYoung gives the example of a Marine who brought her an MRE, the packaged meals designed to provide nourishment to soldiers in the field. She suggests that, like marines, Christians have a mission in the world and may need to shape their consumption around that mission. Depending on circumstances, that could entail fasting, eating simple prepared foods when there isn’t much time for food preparation, or having celebratory feasts. This suggestion about eating in consonance with one’s mission also pertains to older adults who are Christians. Research into adult development suggests that it is important for adults past midlife to have a sense of mission that goes beyond oneself. According to Harvard researcher George Vaillant, from midlife on generativity becomes important. That is, the aging adult starts thinking of ways in which they can leave a legacy or benefit subsequent generations. A decade or two later, many older adults become keepers of meaning–those who transmit the community’s or culture’s values and traditions to future leaders. Both generativity and keeping meaning are vocations that may affect when, what, and with whom the person eats. Pleasure is no longer the primary consideration of what we eat or how we spend our time. Freed from gluttony, we can make a difference in the world that will outlive us.