Will power? Maybe later

Sometimes there's that thing, that trend we all know is true -- and it just takes someone to piece it all together, call it by its rightful name. If the 1970s were famously dubbed "The Me Decade," is America just now waking up from a hangover caused by "The Age of Excess?"

Daniel Akst is very sure the answer is yes.

He's written a book that has its flaws, but it getting attention for the way it synthesizes all those threads in our society that have knitted together to form this particular moment. The book is called We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in the Age of Excess.

Akst looks at American obesity, reckless debt, the housing bubble, and the vast array of "addictions" we keep coming up with -- then he calls it what it plainly is: a loss of self-discipline.

Now, as a guy taught by Jesuits in high school, I know all aobut self-discipline. And I've had any number of arguments over the years with non-believing friends who see themselves as free-spirited libertines. The discussion usually tracks this way: religion is just a form of repression, they say, and repression (we all know) kills the human psyche.

No, I answer, religion and a system of ethical beliefs is a form of self-discipline, without which the human psyche turns into the kind of New Age mush that worships anything it feels like, including the vibrations coming out of desert landscapes in the vast southwest.

At this point, I'm dismissed as horribly Catholic and the subject is changed.

Akst asserts that my friends' viewpoint has contributed to our current excess, and -- to make matters worse -- our unwillingness to take any responsibility for it. Overeating? Cheating on your spouse? Shopping till you drop? These are not personal failures -- they're addictions and you are the victim.

Akst says we are as humans is a successful society awalys battling between two kids of desire.

"First-order desire," he writes, tempt us with immediate gratification; "second order desires" tap into our wish for longer-term health and happiness. So, we may have a first-order desire for a one-thousand calorie burrito with extra cheese battling our second-order desire to keep out arteries clear long enough for us to see our grandchildren grow up.

Letting your second-order desires dominate, Akst says, is not about repression and joy-killing. Instead, he says, it's a way to make yourself happier and more joyful in a higher way, in "your highest level of reflection."

Which, I must tell my friends (and they know who they are) sounds very Catholic.


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