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“Treat Yo’self!”: When small indulgences take over

treat_yo_self

Elizabeth Scalia - published on 03/13/17

Self-denial and delayed gratification are two tough things to deal with, sometimes

[Editor’s Note: Prompted by a reader who found this helpful within Lent, Aleteia reproduces here Chapter 4 of Elizabeth Scalia’s book Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us, with the kind permission of the publisher.]

“Treat Yo’self!”; When Small Indulgences Take Over

“Life is short; eat dessert first.”

–Attributed to many

A memorable episode of NBC’s Parks and Recreation involved two of the series’ most flamboyant characters, Tom and Donna, inviting the uptight budget-manager Ben along as they spend a day relaxing and indulging all of their material whims.

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“I really want this dress,” Donna says, emerging from a dressing room, “and I like this crystal beetle, but it’s expensive, and there’s no use for it.”

“Donna Meagle,” replies Tom before a befuddled Ben, “Treat yo’self!”

Then Tom models his own choices: “Velvet slippies; cashmere socks; velvet pants; cashmere turtle: I’m a cashmere-velvet candy cane!”

To which Donna emphatically responds, “Treat yo’self!”

Ben, who has been observing this behavior in quiet befuddlement, breaks the fourth wall and says to the viewer, “This is insane.”

Part of the joke is that Tom and Donna both know that. They completely understand how absurd and over-the-top they are being with their outlandish self-pampering, which is why they only permit themselves to enjoy it one day a year; any more than that and their harmless lark would morph into something desperate, needy, and sad. It would require rationalizations against common sense and spiritual health that neither character would have the interest or energy to come up with.

Most of us aren’t looking to spend a cartoonish day buying stuff we don’t need, but we all have little ways we “treat” ourselves, and to rationalize it we adopt a Hobbesian spin: life is nasty, brutish and short, and we deserve it. Those unfamiliar with Hobbes break it down to YOLO: You only live once.

There’s nothing morally wrong with an occasional small indulgence, particularly in the midst of something festive – even in Lent, after all, we are permitted to exempt ourselves from our disciplines on Sundays, because a day of resurrection must be celebrated. For many of us, however, particularly in the prosperous West – and even more particularly, I might say, in the United States – treating ourselves has become an everyday sort of thing. One of my friends recently wondered what she should give her son for his 21st birthday. “He has everything,” she lamented, “and this has been the problem since he was 12! I never know what to get him for his birthday or Christmas, because no one waits anymore to get stuff on special occasions. It’s not like when we were kids!”

She was right, and we both reminisced about the excitement we felt as children, when the approach of a birthday or Christmas meant the acquisition of something special – something we really wanted that would never be considered a casual or ordinary purchase. I can still remember how speechless I was when my parents presented me an electric typewriter for my 14th birthday, because back in the olden days – the 1970’s – one didn’t just buy something because one wanted it, especially not something as luxurious as that. My friend recalled how thrilled she was, at 15, with the “vanity package” her parents had given her; it included a lighted mirror, a blow dryer and a curling iron. “Your typewriter, and my grooming supplies!” she marveled. “They were things you wanted and waited for. Now, my kids tell me they want something and somehow it becomes a ‘need’ – it’s not even a treat; it’s just something I go out and buy.”

This, of course, is one of the pitfalls of prosperity; the more we have, the more readily we possess, the less we seek to possess God and the more our spirits become distracted.

“The deceitful charms of prosperity destroy more souls than all the scourges of adversity,” warned Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

We “treat ourselves” all the time, and because we do, we have become so expert at rationalizations that they take no energy at all.

  • I’m stopping off for a drink with the girls before I head home, because my manager is a jerk, and I deserve it.
  • I know my smart phone is perfectly fine, but the new one is out and I want it, and I can give the old one to my kid (if she’ll accept it) or even better, my mother, who will never buy one for herself!
  • The scale shows I’m down four pounds, so I can have ice-cream because I’m sad, today.

We can make excuses for ourselves ad nauseam, and when we do we are not only affecting our world, our families, our jobs, our weight; we are impacting our spirits, too, and not in positive ways.

Permissiveness in parenting raises untrained, wild children who are constantly trying to gauge the lines; they do not understand the idea of boundaries. A daily habit of treating oneself creates a similar disorientation in adults, as well. Benedictine monks and nuns will tell you, “Allow one fault and you will get another.” By this they don’t mean we should be neurotic and over-scrupulous – as though our salvation depends upon our self-willed perfection (an idea which completely disrespects the workings of grace). Rather they mean we must avoid becoming complacent about what permissions we give to ourselves; maintain vigilance in honestly assessing one’s indulgence before it becomes a bad habit, otherwise the boundaries become blurred and hard to discern.

Diminished perspective broadens our self-permissiveness; excuses and rationalizations become easier and easier until, before we know it, our spiritual lives become sabotaged through our comfortable excuses and rationalizations. After a while, we don’t even see our sins as actual sins; they become things we joke about:

  • Remember keep Holy the Lord’s Day: C’mon, my job is demanding and the weekend is short and full of family obligations, and I’m sure I deserve to luxuriate of a Sunday morning with coffee and the paper, instead of heading off to church. God already knows I love him and he wants me to be happy, right?
  • Thou shalt not steal: So, the clerk rang it up at the sale price, when it wasn’t on sale; it’s alright, it’s probably going to be on sale next week; it all balances out, right?
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery:  It’s a best-seller, so what if it’s a little soft-porny? It’s just a fantasy, and it spices things up, and what’s wrong with that as long as I’m a good person?
  • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain: Oh, madonn’a mi, talk about being scrupulous, why don’t you kiss the g**damn floor over it, already?

It is astounding how easy it is to rationalize our way out of grace and into sin. I confess to having permitted myself a sinful period of “small” but potent self-indulgence in my own life, by way of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. By exploiting a simple line on how maturity and psychological-bearing contributed to behaviors, I rather masterfully (or madly, in retrospect) excused myself from self-accusation and conversion by recognizing that I was immature and psychologically deficient, which case I proved to myself (and eventually to a surprised priest) by suggesting that only someone immature and psychologically dented would grab a line from the Catechism in order to feel alright about her sinfulness, which was born of her immaturity and psychological woes. The priest was so impressed with my creative rationalization that he gave me a creative penance and also ordered me to pray for an increase in vocations because, “if more people start thinking like you, we’re going to need a lot more priests!”

It is a prayer I keep up, even all these years later. A happy penance, actually.

So, is it a sin to “treat yo’self” once in a while? Of course not, as long as we understand – like Tom and Donna on Parks and Recreation — that we are “treating” ourselves, and that a “treat” is, by definition, something that is not a daily indulgence but a real occasion. For them, and for geeky, uptight Ben, the one-day excursion into extravagance actually became an opportunity for grace to work in their lives; the friends listened to each other and enjoyed each other in profound silliness that still had a point: when Ben admitted that buying a Batman suit would be an unthinkable “treat” for himself, he was not laughed at but encouraged. In the final scene he signals with the snap of his Batcape that he has suddenly seen the value and gift of his nerdiness, and of all the small unglamorous but helpful ways it serves those about him.

I know a family whose members scrupulously avoid desserts and snacks of any kind, except one Sunday a month, when they spread ice cream and cakes and goodies about the table and have “dessert for dinner”; grace abounds in that nutritionally-suspect meal – which nobody misses — as the family relaxes and talks and laughs in each other’s company while “feasting” on what for too many of us have become such habitual pleasures that we no longer really enjoy them.

And that is the problem with too much self-treating, with the over-assuaging of our appetites, whether they originate in pride, or gluttony or wrath, or lust, or sloth, or envy or greed: after a while, genuine regard is not enough; we need fawning sycophants; after a while we don’t even taste the chocolate, we just want more; after a while it’s not enough to indulge in our anger, we seek to destroy; after a while, we forget that the lust, or the jealousy, or the greed that has taken hold of our hearts and begun to own us, and to warp our perspective, began with a small “treat” permitted without examination, without the recognition that we were, in fact, engaging in something unusual, and about which complacency could become deadly. Allow one fault, and you permit another, and eventually, grace gets crowded out.

What does Catholicism say about small indulgences?

The repetition of sins – even venial ones – engenders vices, among which are the capital sins.

–Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1876

We must take care of little faults: for he who once begins to go backward, and to make light of such defects, brings a sort of grossness over his conscience, and then goes wrong altogether.

–Saint Philip Neri

Be gentle to all, and firm with yourself.

–Saint Teresa of Avila

Do not try to excuse your faults; try to correct them.

–Saint John Bosco

Truly it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since that is to add the further fault of a voluntary illusion.

–Blaise Pascal

A single bad book will be sufficient to cause the destruction of an entire monastery.

–St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori

Self-control and strenuous effort curb desire; stillness and intense longing for God wither it.

–St. Thalassios the Libyan

How do we break away from the sin or habit of over-treating ourselves?

Take the advice of Saint Philip Neri: One of the reasons you keep seeing his name pop up is because Philip Neri had a knack for giving great advice in succinct terms, and one thing he continually counseled visitors to his Oratory churches and his confessional was this: “Remember to read spiritual books, especially the Lives of the Saints.”

To get good from reading the Lives of the Saints, and other spiritual books, we ought not to read out of curiosity, or skimmingly, but with pauses; and when we feel ourselves warmed, we ought not to pass on, but to stop and follow up the spirit which is stirring in us, and when we feel it no longer, then to pursue our reading.

What he is describing here is not simply reading about saints but using the examples of their lives, their own discoveries as they drew nearer to spiritual perfection, and their insights as a kind of lectio divina, which means – simply put – to notice when you feel jolted or intrigued by something you have read, accept the feeling as a prompting of the Holy Spirit and give yourself over to really thinking about the idea or biographical episode before you.

Assume that the Holy Spirit wants you to glean an insight of your own, and readily consent to give yourself over to it. Re-read the passage aloud if you can, even if you must whisper the words, and then invite the saint to teach you what they know. Be willing to let your imagination travel into it; perhaps try breaking the idea down into a scene, or a dialogue, or even a haiku or a simple song. The point being, if your attention is being pulled toward a specific line, then do not read forward; rather, allow yourself to linger there, and to be led.  In doing so you will better commit what you’ve read to memory, if not word-for-word at least in essences, and then you will be able to revisit what has intrigued you whenever you like, and continue to learn from it.

Researching the life of the great Benedictine Abbess and Mystic (and Doctor of the Church) Hildegard of Bingen, I read her words, “Thus am I ‘a feather on the breath of God,’” and became entranced at so delightful an image: imagine being a feather, blown about by God – it would mean surrender to God’s will, of course, an idea I had often found (and sometimes still do find) challenging, and for the same reasons you probably do: what if God’s will is something I really, really don’t want, like illness, or financial hardship or untimely death?  Hildegard’s words were pretty, but just beneath them lay the reality of Christ Jesus at Gethsemane, and who among us really wants Gethsemane?

But thinking of it further – imagining a feather blown here-and-there, up and down, what struck me was the lightness of it all: lightness of flight; lightness of descent; lightness of landing. A feather can be strewn about, in the harshest of winds, and yet it remains light; it lands lightly. Hildegard was saying that beyond being obedient to God’s will, she was so confident that any event through which she was led was to her ultimate good that she could bear all things with lightness; no grimacing. Therefore, because God is Good, only good can arise from our living within his slipstream even if it looks ominous. It is a message we have heard before: Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Hildegard’s image spells it out in a remarkably accessible and beguiling way; subjecting it to a bit of lectio has helped me to remember it, and ponder it at challenging moments. In a prayer journal written several years after reading those words, I found myself writing, “O Love, keep me faithful, sustained by your lift — your air-dancer moving in time.” It was a prayer directly informed by Hildegard, and yes, prayer-journals can sometimes get very romantic like that, so don’t judge; just go with the flow!

Reading the lives of the saints will inform your perspective and provide models of behavior that can help you learn about detachment from everything that is not God’s will for you, and that would include the tendencies toward excessive self-indulgence that can ultimately pull you away from the spiritual practices that keep you grounded and open to grace. It won’t happen overnight, I am proof of that, but in the course of time, little by little, saint by saint, lectio by lectio, and sometimes decade by decade, the desire to “treat yo’self” changes in subtle ways, until nothing feels like a better treat than doing something generous for someone else, instead of yourself.

Be Mindful of Your Guardian Angels: Despite the brief angel craze of the 1990s, very few people really take their guardian angels seriously, but they are an ever-faithful source of assistance, if we will only remember to ask for their help. I talk to my guardian angel every day – I ask for help with my prayer (especially with the Rosary; if I am tired, I will begin by asking my angel to pray it with me, and complete it for me if I fall asleep); I ask my angel to please meet up with the guardian angel of those I am will be meeting with later, especially if there is contention between us; I ask my angel to assist the angels of those I love, if they are in difficult or dangerous circumstances. I also ask my angel to be with me when I am feeling tempted to sin – to pray for me and uphold me and, if I’m really feeling like I am going to fall – to do battle with the tempter who has ensnared me.

I will confess that I do not always ask my angel to help me to avoid sin, but those are always time when – being perfectly honest, here – I want to indulge my sin, and I fully intend to sin; I don’t avail myself of the assistance that is mine for the asking, because I know it will come; my angel will come to my aid, and I will probably not get to do the thing I know I shouldn’t do but want to do so badly. I choose poorly.

We forget how awful grave sin can feel until we give ourselves permission to indulge in it. We stupid, broken humans do that, sometimes; it is the very definition of mortal sin: to willfully give oneself over to the thing we know we should not want and thus pull ourselves away from grace.

It is always a regrettable thing; it is always a refrain-from-the Eucharist-and-go-to-Confession event, when I prefer my own desires over the help of my angel. After a while, one can’t even plead immaturity or psychological deficiency; it’s simply a desire for disorder, a consent to the agent of chaos and a reach-back to Original Sin.

I am forever thanking my guardian angel for the help I know I am given; sadly, sometimes I must also apologize, for the help I have refused.

Pray:

Lord, you have given us a world full of so many good things, and through the example of your saints we know that all things, in moderation, exemplify your goodness. Help us to discern when we have begun to slide from occasional self-indulgences into habits that can render us so vulnerable to our cravings and desires – for food, for success, for acceptance – that we begin to move away from you, and the gift of our grace. In the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us

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