Gluttony is not a regular word in my vocabulary. Aside from the phrase, “glutton for punishment” this word rarely enters my speech, and even then I use it facetiously. The second sermon in Alex Riegel’s series on Vice and Virtue, Gluttony and Temperance, led me to think beyond that pithy phrase and about the gluttony of my own life. Just as lust refers more than a desire for sexual pleasure, so gluttony refers to more than an excessive intake of food and drink. Certainly anything one lusts for can then lead to gluttony. One can overindulge in food, drink, sex, possessions, sports, TV, or (gasp) yarn. Basically, gluttony is the acquisition of more than one needs.
During the sermon, the congregation was asked to give examples of gluttony in the world. Congregants mentioned Dubai’s massive physical structures, big businesses’ feast on money,Wall Street, McMansions, and the auto industry, all places that certainly embody gluttony for power and money. My first thought was my own home. I live in a 70-year-old cape cod of about 1800 square feet. Its three bedrooms and four baths more than accommodate the boys and I, and there are far more places to comfortably sit than our three backsides can use at a time. Bookshelves in every room reveal a gluttony for books, despite a fine public library system in our area. Closets hold more clothes than we can possibly wear; cabinets, more games than we can ever play — you get the idea.
I doubt I’m alone in this form of gluttony. It’s little comfort to know that most of you reading this post own more than you need to be comfortable. In fact, it’s downright disturbing how much most of us in this country own, or at least the portion of us reading this on our home computer, iPad, phone, laptop, or netbook. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those devices, or anything wrong with clothing, books, toys, chairs, or cars. I’m far from an ascetic in philosophy or practice. But most of us have too much. We’re gluttons even before we tuck into the kitchen table three (or more) times a day.
Now, I come from a rather self-flagellating line on my dad’s side, so berating myself for owning too much, buying too big, or breathing more than my share than the air seems to be in my genes. I’m good at looking at my life and seeing upon what I could improve. I’m not so hot at making changes, but I do try. Several times a year I de-clutter with the aim of reducing the stuff in our lives. These binges usually follow tripping on one too many duct tape sword or noticing the size 5T shirt in my 9-year-old’s closet. Sometimes these sprees are the result of glutton guilt, but more often they’re just my way of bringing a bit of organization to my life.
But I don’t think those sprees of reduction are the point of this sermon topic. Gluttony is more than just having too much or eating too much. Gluttony occurs when our overindulgence steps on another’s right to have enough. It’s easy to absolve ourselves with gluttony on this front. After all, I’ve never taken food out of the hands of a hungry child or evicted someone from a home so I could have a place put my 54 inch flat screen (okay, we have a 20-some inch big boxy TV from some 10 years back).
Or have I?
It may not be the having that’s the gluttony for many of us but more what price others pay for what we acquire. Picking the fairly traded blouse over the mass-produced name brand made-in-a-sweatshop shirt is a choice away from gluttony. A move toward eating homegrown or very locally grown produce and selecting other locally made goods saves fossil fuel for the next generation (although hopefully we find something better for them and the environment) because it doesn’t travel thousands of miles to reach our door. Fixing a chair rather than ditching it and heading to IKEA for a new one keeps less out of the waste stream on both ends of the production cycle. All are temperance in action.
So while my urge to move out the excess has its merits to my sense of aesthetics and aversion to chaos, it’s not actually the answer to gluttony. Control on the buying end and making wise choices seems key. These same practices help redistribute the wealth, decrease waste and pollution, and respect workers by buying from companies that provide a living wage.
I’m not there yet. I try to think about purchases, asking myself a few questions: Do I really need this? Do I have something already that will do the job? Who made this, and at what personal and ecological price? Can I buy something similar with a smaller ecological and human price tag? Can I do without? Those questions slow me down, although they hardly stop every unneeded or careless purchase. And that’s a step away from gluttony.