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The Gerbil Gangster

by Tim Garvin | Essay 

This is about food eating. A good place to start is to note that the self is an unruly rascal that wants conflicting things. Our food self wants plenty of food and that conflicts with another self that wants health and feeling good. We call all these selves me to keep things sane, but they’re different because they want different things.

Controlling the food self is hard because it involves enduring the pain of hunger and resisting the pleasure of deliciousness. But is it always hard? Here’s a thought experiment: imagine a criminal has someone you love—make it your pet gerbil, Doe Eyes—bound in a chair with a gun pointed at her head. (Doe Eyes was my wife’s suggestion, since she disliked thinking of a criminal with a gun pointed at her daughter’s head.) The criminal informs you that if you eat more than 1500 calories each day he will kill your gerbil. (Or daughter, if you have the stomach.) You get out the calorie book. An egg is so much, a carrot, a glass of milk, a pickle. You get a total somewhere around 1500. Do you eat that total? Certainly not, because, hey, big carrot, big glass, big egg, who knows? It’s Doe Eyes, after all. So you stop around a 1000 to be safe. Evening comes and so does hunger. Do you think of food? You do not. You’re not even tempted. (For those that are tempted and think, oh well, it’s just a gerbil, substitute your offspring.) The criminal sweeps past with a hamburger and a milk shake, and you hardly notice. Why not? Because there is a massive boulder of will embedded in your mind, and the desire for food cannot enter. The desire for food, the food self, gives up. The market is closed, and the food self and all its allies (hey, don’t fat shame; hey, I exercise but still…; hey, I got these genes; hey, I got a great personality; hey, I’m celebrating; hey, what’s life for?; hey, this-is-me-get-used-to-it) are silenced. They cannot squeeze past the boulder of gerbil (or daughter) love.

It’s a great diet plan. But how to set it up without hiring someone to hold a gun on your gerbil? How to get that massive, immovable boulder of will lodged in your mind?

Here’s a start: grant that not eating so much will result in weight loss. Then assemble your excuses and inform them one by one that not eating so much will result in weight loss. They’ll flutter and fume, of course, since they’re the mouthpieces of the food self. So far so good. Then this thought experiment: imagine yourself thinner, twenty pounds, fifty, whatever’s right. That’s a possible future you. That person can actually exist and walk around, be in company, healthy, attractive, active, free. You’re the one aiming a gun at the head of that future you.

Every time you eat a cookie you pull the trigger, and the embryo of that new self has to start over. Imagine that thin future you, then stroll past the cookies and feel the struggle. It’s the food self and its allies against the future you. You’re outnumbered, but they’re pygmies compared with your power. You have to reach for the cookies. The pygmies have voices. But not hands.

Still, if you’re overweight, you’ve been reaching, and thinking about that brings up the next thought, which is the last one and the big one. Why is it, day after day, that we persist in firing a bullet into the embryo of that peppy healthy attractive future self? Will-power deficit? Habit? Those play their part, but I think that deep in our hearts, we know that a thin self and attractive self and peppy self is not necessarily a happy self, a full self, an achieving self. A self not lonely. A self not full of anxiety, worry, and discontent. In short, a loving, kind, and gracious self, which, as all ages and cultures have agreed, is the happy self. And when we pass by the cookies, we know, with the marvelous foreknowledge of intuition, that even if we become thin and beautiful something will be lacking. Instead of being overweight and discontent, we will be thin and discontent. We will have run a meaningless race, and the trophy of victory, thinness and health, will mock us. This is not neurosis, it’s human. If it’s to be emptiness, at least let us have something delicious as consolation! That’s why dragging your out-of-control food self into the court of conscience is not only unfair, it’s useless. The food self needs discipline, no doubt, but it is the discontented self behind that relents and gives cookie permissions, the self whose tormenting foreknowledge of discontent—despite thinness—shrieks the alarm: For God’s sake, let me at least enjoy something!

But this question—aren’t there happy, self-actualized, even spiritual people who are overweight, yet indifferent to appearance, perhaps even to health? That doesn’t seem impossible, and probably in each of us there is some element of that indifference. But most of us collectively, and most of us individually, would prefer health.

So it seems to me that the above thinking stands and is why we misname this giving-in-to-food business as a lack of will-power when it’s not that really. It’s a form of despair that life is just not fun enough without the pleasure of food. Some people, no doubt, have a built-in gerbil gangster—pro athletes and Hollywood actors, for instance, who have a big stake in food control. But where do the rest of us, particularly in the food-plentiful West, find our boulder of will? How do we convince ourselves that controlling our food self will be worth it? Each of us knows intuitively that this has everything to do some elusive inner self, the lens of all life, that doesn’t quite like life enough, or at least like it in the right way. Or something. This goes on, into philosophy, psychology, religion, spirituality, about which you can read books. Books about the inner self are the same as food though—they can’t reach the sore place where discontent lives. Each of us must seek that place alone, in the inner world, inch by inch, moment by moment, honesty by honesty. It’s good to know that the food game is part of that game though, because that game is the last game, and it ends, atheist or theist, in fullness. Plus thinness and health, which are nice dividends (unless you’re an obliviously overweight saint).

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