Sunday, May 8, 2011

Excess in Moderation

           First of all, sorry to have been away for so long. RL intruded, albeit not in unpleasant ways.

            I find the way people live their lives fascinating. And what I find most fascinating about the way people live their lives is how they live them in relation to death. It is a tired truism to say that the lives of most contemporary westerners are far removed from the reality that is death. Barring unforeseen tragedy, we enjoy lifespans longer than any generation that has come before us. We fight wars, but they are conducted far away from our shores. Our meat comes in styrofoam and plastic wrap. If you live in Maine, as I do, and look forward to lobster season, as I do, you know that when it comes time to put the bugs in the pot, most of the room, including the people planning on eating lobster, clear out.

             Since I have spent much of this blog staking out a position that does not think it very likely (at all) that we can expect much after the death of everything that currently makes us "us"- our bodies and brains, I should address the differences inherent in believing in life after death and not. One would expect that an individual who claims to fully believe that they will be resurrected to eternal bliss would live with less fear of death, but, at least in my own personal experience, this seems not to be the case. In fact, all of the people I know who are most terrified of death, are simultaneously the same people who claim to be most assured of their place in eternity. This may simply be, however, that the promise of eternal life is most attractive in the first place to those who are inherently the most terrified of their own mortality. On the other hand, not thinking eternal life very likely forces one to constantly reckon (at least on some level) with the idea that, "This is it." Perhaps expecting to live forever, but never being absolutely, unquestionably sure makes death harder to deal with, because you have much bigger hopes to fear being dashed.

            So let's call it a wash, and acknowledge that everyone of us, whether we believe in eternal life or not, struggles, on some level, with the idea of our own mortality. However, whether death comes slowly and expectedly, as from cancer, or quickly and unexpectedly, like from a bus,* it comes in the absolute, final sense in but a single moment of our lives. So how we relate to death is less about how we expect to think or feel or act in those final moments, and more about how we live every other moment of our lives with the knowledge of the inevitability of that one, final moment, coming somewhere down the line.

            And how do most of us relate to the inevitability of that moment? We ignore it.

            We do this in one of two ways, and this is the behavior that I find fascinating. Some ignore it by pretending that nothing they do could possibly hasten its arrival, whether that is eating too much, drinking too much, drugging too much, sitting too much, worrying too much. Others ignore it by pretending it will never happen and so put off the things they enjoy for another day, always another day. Surely there is another way?

            There is much wisdom in the ancient saying: Everything in moderation, and our society has long considered moderation a virtue. There is however, an oft-overlooked logical twist here, which can be made plain by adding the twist to the original formula: Everything in moderation, including moderation. When one pauses to think that the logical conclusion to Everything in moderation would necessarily include moderation, we have to ask ourselves what moderate moderation would look like.

            But first we need to ask, what do we moderate? When most people think of "moderation" they think of the things we find pleasurable; food, drink, sex. But we moderate much more than that. We moderate risk. We moderate our ideas. We moderate our beliefs, our opinions. We moderate our speech. We moderate our feelings, our emotions. And most of the time, a majority of the time, this is the wise thing to do, the sensible thing to do.

            But is "sensible" all you really want? If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, how much of the next 24 hours would be spent doing "sensible" things? Would you eat oatmeal with skim milk for breakfast? Would you clean the house? Would you go to bed at 9pm? Would you say goodbye to a friend you have always found attractive without giving them a good, solid kiss?

           The tricky part of living life is striking a balance, moderating, between the long and the short positions. Putting a $3k flat-screen TV on a credit card when you have nothing in the bank is idiotic; but so is stopping after two drinks cause you have work in the morning when sitting with a friend you haven't seen in a year. It is a tad foolish to live everyday as if we expect to die tomorrow, but it is equally as foolish to pretend that it isn't a possibility.

            Hence the title of this post, Excess in Moderation. Because, yes, everything in moderation also allows for excess, albeit in moderation. What I find fascinating, when observing people's behavior, is the people who can never let go, even when the time is right. People who stay at the safe job they know, rather than going for the one the want. People who put off having kids, because they "aren't in the right place financially," even though they want them. (My mom was great about helping me get over this, reminding me that I spent the first year of my life living in a warehouse, literally, and I turned out okay. Relatively speaking.) People who never speak their minds, even on issues that matter to them. People who work hard to not fall in love, for fear of getting their heart broken.

            Asking someone what they would do if they knew they were going to die tomorrow is rather pointless, because most of us would do almost anything, since we would have to deal with almost no consequences. A better question to ask is; What would you do differently if you knew you were going to die in five years? Which things would then become worth the social or emotional risk they come with?

           Would you visit a country you've always wanted to visit? Would you speak more openly about what you believe, or don't believe? Would you admit to yourself that you are in love with a close friend who isn't available? Would you admit it to them? Would have some good friends over and drink too much, stay up too late, on (gasp!) a Wednesday? Would you sleep with more than one person at the same time? Would you roll down a grassy hill with your daughter in your good shirt? Would you take a day of from your exercise routine to see the family you see but once a year? Would you start writing that book you've had in your head for years, even if you can't write for shit? Would you start that band? Would you go back to school for something you, you know, actually enjoy?

            There are few things more commendable than self-control. But when you no longer have control over your self-control, is it self-control at all?

* I was reminded that I owe my usage of the death-coming-suddenly-by-bus idea to a certain M. Phoenix, a friend and former more-than-that who employed it regularly. She also happens to make incredible art with glass, which you can see by following the link here.


  1. I love this thought process, Rob. My mind has been in a very similar place a lot lately, so I really can relate to this post.

    After a lot of thought, this is what it largely boils down to for me: aside from the obvious (food, alcohol, drugs, etc.), what really needs to be moderated the most is (a) the number of things we "have" to do at any one time, and (b) the amount of spending on all those "necessary" widgets.

    Like most people, I generally have so many things I need to do that I rarely appreciate any one of them. And too often, I'm not mindful of the things that really matter. Instead of hurrying from one thing to the next, I should be giving my attention to my kid when he asks for it. Every time. Instead of thinking about the million other things running through my mind, I should be really listening to my wife when she needs to talk. Most everything else is, in comparison, meaningless.

    And spending money on various "important" widgets almost always accomplishes only two things: (1) it makes us have to work more to afford our lives, and (2) it puts more things in our possession that ultimately just clutter and complicate. And both of those result in having less time to enjoy the things that really matter.

    Because in five years, if I'm lying on my death bed, I won't care how much money I made, how many widgets I bought, or how many people considered me "successful." All I'll care about are the moments and the people. And if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, the last thing I'll give a shit about is the cool new thing I bought today.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Ian.

    You're so right, although what you have said almost warrants a post of its own. We often get lost in irrelevant things, and fail to be "present" for the things that matter. Jen has actually brought that up recently, and I know that Brian has devoted a section of the book he is writing to that same idea.

    I try to institute a "rule" in my life. If something is going to take up several days of my time, you can mention it to me several weeks before. If it is going to take up a couple of hours of my time, mention it a couple of days before. If it is going to take minutes, mention it an hour before. Some people spend so much time on their "calendars" fretting about things they "have to do" that are very far removed from what is going on right now. I don't get it.

  3. Just seen you already had the link to Also, I like your map widget. Seems like your getting your message out to people all over the world, congrats.