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According to a report that the World Health Organization published some years ago, South Africa leads the ranking in the most obese countries in sub-Saharan Africa. I don’t know how accurate the report is. But reading it reminded me of something that I read in Gandhi’s Autobiography.

“About this time, I read of the formation of a ‘No Breakfast Association’ in Manchester. The argument of the promoters was that Englishmen ate too often and too much, that their doctors’ bills were heavy because they ate until midnight, and that they should at least give up breakfast, if they wanted to improve this state of affairs. Though all these things could not be said of me, I felt that the argument did partly apply in my case. I used to have three square meals daily in addition to afternoon tea. I was never a spare eater and enjoyed as many delicacies as could be had with a vegetarian and spiceless diet. I scarcely ever got up before six or seven. I therefore argued that, if I also dropped the morning breakfast, I might become free from headaches. So, I tried the experiment. For a few days it was rather hard, but the headaches entirely disappeared. This led me to conclude that I was eating more than I needed.”

Excerpt From: M.K Gandhi. “An Autobiography”.

I think that’s a conclusion which applies across the board. And maybe the world is need of hearing a lot more said about the virtue of temperance.

WHAT IS TEMPERANCE?

Temperance is a harsh sounding, negative word. Don’t overindulge. Don’t eat too much. Don’t drink in excess.” It’s almost like a long list of “Don’ts.” And that could make life quite boring. But let’s take a moment and look at the opposite of temperance – gluttony. One of the best definitions of gluttony I have come across is given by Fulton Sheen in his book, “Victory Over Vice” in the chapter on Gluttony. He defines gluttony as:

“…an inordinate indulgence in food or drink, either in taking more than is necessary, in taking it at the wrong time, or in taking it too luxuriously. It is sinful because reason demands that food and drink be taken for the necessities and conveniences of nature, not for pleasure alone.”

Excerpt From: Sheen, Archbishop Fulton J. “Victory over Vice”.

Let’s try and flip that around and use it to define temperance.

“…an ordered consumption of food or drink, either in taking what is needed, in taking at the correct time, or in taking it within sensible economic limits.”

I think that’s a good, overall definition of the virtue which is called temperance, when it concerns food, or sobriety, when it concerns drink.

WHY TEMPERANCE?

Going beyond keeping your body healthy, this virtue also keeps your soul alert. A good signifier of this is remembering the less fortunate in society. They are all around us, but you run the risk of never paying them any heed, because you have made ourselves and “your needs” the centre of the universe. I came across a very interesting explanation of the idea behind this in the document Gaudium et Spes by Pope John Paul II.

“…man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

Excerpt From: Gaudium Et Spes, Pope St. John Paul II.

In other words, human beings don’t have a by-product, or a mission, or an objective, that is greater than to be fully human. This means that the most valuable thing, the most valuable gift, that you can give to anyone else, is yourself. Not money, not vacations, not jewelry, and not anything that your hands or your mind can make. The most valuable thing you or I can give, is ourselves. But what does giving yourself mean?

I think it comes down to giving people your attention, and all the results thereof. It’s far too easy to drop some loose change in a cup, or to fire off a sizeable charitable donation if you’ve got the extra cash. But do you know the name of that beggar whom you are helping? Do you know how old she is? Where she was born? Where her mother is right now? Do you know what their last meal was? You can only find those things out when you give people our attention.

The word attention has its roots in the Latin word “tendere”, which means to “reach out to or stretch towards.” This implies some kind of effort. (The word “tension” also has the same root.) It’s interesting that the act of gift-giving physically resembles a reaching out. This reaching out to people, this effort-based self-giving, is impossible when you are wrapped up in yourself, your own needs, and your own desires for a luxurious lifestyle.

The apostle St. Paul develops this idea a little bit further, where he says that the carnal man cannot have any concern for spiritual things. Why is this the case? It’s because of the way in which human nature is designed. There’s a certain hierarchy, a certain order in our in your varied abilities. First and foremost, at the top of that pyramid, and what is supposed to control everything else within you – how you eat, how you drink, your desires, your passions, emotions and reactions, is your intellect and our will. This is your rational part. If you keep it like that, and it takes a constant struggle, it leads to your life being “well ordered.” And that’s what leads you to happiness. But why is it such a struggle?

Because your inner world is like a garden. Emotions, reactions, passions, memories, fantasies and sentiments are like flowers, trees and hedges that add to its beauty. But they need to be pruned. They need to be watered during the dry spell, and they need to have the weeds pulled out constantly. If you don’t do that, then like any other garden that’s not looked after, it will tend to chaos. But with constant effort to weed, to maintain, to prune, to cut, your inner world attains more and more of that beauty which it is meant to attain. And as the “carnal side” is tamed, the spiritual side awakes.

But the converse is also true, and this makes your spiritual side fall asleep. This is what happens when you feel a distaste for spiritual things.

It is quite normal to develop a distaste for something that you previously enjoyed if you neglect it for too long. Take reading, for example. In high school, many people are forced to read imaginative literature. They were driven to develop a taste for literature and overcome their aversion to it. After high school, they stopped reading literature, and their distaste for it grew as a result. You could put the most interesting page-turner in their hands, but after a few minutes, they would shrug and say, “I’d much rather watch the film.”

The same thing happens in the spiritual life.

The more you give into your desire for food and drink, the more you gain an aversion for spiritual things. And one of the most spiritual things is giving people your full attention, which is the most valuable gift you can give.