Do what feels good

“If it feels good, do it” ranked among the top most blasphemous phrases of my homeschooled youth. You were not supposed to do what felt good. Because obviously, what felt good was probably a sin. Like drugs. Or fornication. Or maybe just smiling to yourself about how you were really, really excellent at math.

“If it feels good, do it,” was supposedly a catchphrase then, how everyone out there lived their lives. At the same time, it became apparent that even out there in carnal society, women were fighting against what felt good in order to look good: short-term pain, long-term gain; feel the burn; don’t eat that cake. They were pitting themselves against their bodies, caving for a guilty indulgence of half a pie, then punishing themselves on the treadmill for their trespasses. The cult of self-flagellation, the deity of looking svelte in spandex.

When I moved to France to study abroad and live with a woman who spoke no English, I had sworn off cheese because I was convinced it was making me fat. I said I didn’t like it, which was only semi-true. Thankfully, that didn’t last. I was plunged headlong into the tradition of French dinner, French food, French cheese, bread, wine, duck, beef, l’apéretif, l’entrée, le plat principal. I ate the best food I’d ever tasted, regularly. I did not get fatter.

I watched French commercials for food, all about le plaisir: the idea that pleasure is your birthright, that food and life are made for enjoyment. Pleasure was practically a dirty word in English, fraught with images of forbidden horrors, cocaine-fueled orgies in rivers of whipped cream and lobster tail. But it was intrinsically part of the language in France. You couldn’t even say please without referring to it. S’il vous plaît, if it gives you pleasure. And nobody blushed.

The verb to pleasure is a raunchy-sounding euphemism in English. It’s sexual, overtly and gratuitously. The corresponding verb plaire has none of these connotations; il me plaît, he pleases me, meaning I enjoy him as a person. But enjoy isn’t quite right, because joy is different than pleasure. Pleasure is pure sensation, pure response. The taste of food, the feel of the wind, the flutter of what is good down into your fingertips. There is not even a shred of intellectualism or higher calling in pleasure, the way there is in joy. Joy is considered a virtue in nouveau puritan circles and the homeschooling community: you deliberately are joyful because that is what is required of you. JOY, some of us were told, stood for Jesus first, Others second, and You last. Joy, therefore, as self-denial and self-sacrifice, was the antithesis of pleasure. Joy was also the only truly acceptable state of emotionality there was.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-4-30-35-pmProbably, if you were miserable, you were on the right track. As long as you were miserable and dealing with it well. Being miserable meant bearing your cross daily, learning sanctification like a true Protestant, with all the Calvinist hatred of indulgence.

That first time in France, none of this really sank in. I decided I liked French food a lot, but that was about it. The second time I moved to France, I rediscovered what I’d been missing in the intervening years — time around the table with shared rituals and the shared understanding of an entire country intent on eating the best food possible. France’s relationship with food got into my psyche a little more, and I didn’t feel all that guilty when I marched across town and got pain au chocolate on the left side of the river, and then my favorite flan on the right side. Not that guilty, but maybe overdone on sugar.

When you pit yourself against your body, you learn to ignore signals like “this is too much glucose” or “your tendon does not appreciate this.” Also, to some extent, “this pious guy is lying to you” and “you will regret this tomorrow.”

When I started doing what felt good, I ate less sugar, fewer processed carbs. Not because I wanted to deny myself, but because I had the luxury of not eating what would make me feel foggy and hyper. It was a nice luxury. It wasn’t “short term pain, long term gain,” it was “I can do whatever I want, so why would I do that?”

Also “it’s Ok to spend money on things that make me feel good long-term instead of buying the cheapest, quickest option, or gorging myself on these free cookies.”

In general, the crowd that preaches against the temptations of pleasure decry hedonism, excess. They guard against sin. They assume that if you can do whatever you want, you’ll do the worst things, and thus destroy yourself.

But being able to do whatever you want often means the opposite. It means you’re careful with your choices, and intentional about them. If you truly believe you can eat whatever you want, and you’re not hung over from years of not believing this, then you choose wisely. You have a limited stomach, after all. Limited time. Limited insulin. Of course you choose wisely if you want the best.

So the next time you spiral into I-want-this-but-I-can’t-have-it, consider that you can do whatever you want. It’s not a shift that happens overnight. It requires that you listen carefully to your body, treat it like a friend, like an ally who is there to protect you and keep you safe. Your body is made for the best life has to offer. It knows things you may not know intellectually.

It knows what the best thing is; it contains conscience, intuition, sensitivity. It has its own wisdom, its own story to tell. Don’t be afraid of it.

10 thoughts on “Do what feels good

  1. I love cheese in moderation (really good cheese, like sharp cheddar and baby Swiss), I eat cake and donuts and candy and sugar cookies if I happen to want them, and I still have the odd cigarette and glass of wine whenever I damn well feel like it. I stopped smoking as a habit because it’s as bad for you as eating cheeseburgers three times a day, but I still eat cheeseburgers sometimes and I still keep a pack of cigarettes around. I think I last had one about 3 months ago. I’ll probably have one with a beer or two this weekend. And I’m thoroughly addicted to coffee. Good coffee like Seattle’s Best #4. You can have my coffee cup when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.

    Living in misery is stupid. There’s plenty of misery to be had by accident and for free, why would you buy more? Give yourself things that matter.

  2. Perhaps you’re on to something, Katie.

    I agree that many Christians have got the idea of pleasure a bit backwards. John Piper, who coined the term ‘Christian hedonism’ has been helpful in turning this very idea on it’s head. Jesus was not an ascetic. He says we should follow him, precisely because it will make us happy, not at the expense of our happiness. The parables He tells about the kingdom of Heaven are stories of trading something for that which we want more. To those who have left anything behind, He promises to repay “a hundredfold”. The overwhelming witness of the Bible is that God is for our pleasure, and asks us to pursue that which will bring us our deepest satisfaction. Not just an intellectual, self-sacrificing joy, but feasting. As Psalm 16 says, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

    Of course, as you pointed out, Jesus also asks us to pick up our cross. we must die to ourself. Become the least, the servant of all. And it seems like that’s where a lot of Christians stop, and that cross can start sounding pretty gnarly. But I think the reason Jesus could say “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light,” knowing that it would cost His disciples their life, was that He knew it would actually bring them more happiness in the long run.

    Does it seem twisted for God to ask us to suffer for him, putting off temporary pleasure for long-term pleasure? I can see how it would appear so. Honestly, I can see how it would sound really strange to somebody. But I think we know from experience that going through trails, even short-lived pain, increases the ensuing pleasure. Food always tastes better to the hungry. The pride we have in our physique is magnified by the pain we went through on the treadmill. I imagine many parents’ love for their children is amplified by the countless sacrifices they make. Maybe the reason Jesus calls us to die to ourselves is because the greatest pleasures are actually hidden beneath the seemingly severe act of serving others.

  3. You’ve summed up the strange experience of growing up in the fundamentalist subculture of an essentially Puritan culture (America). Unlearning the bizarre lessons of that double dysfunction is very difficult. Thanks for the encouragement; I needed to hear this today.

  4. I’m so glad I found you! Claire sent me here. This is exactly where I’m at these days, and reading this sent me shivering with sheer pleasure from the top of my head to my toes. Looking forward to reading more.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece — very insightful and delicious analysis. I come from the fundamentalist homeschooling world and you nailed the description of messages about pleasure we imbibed growing up. In the past few years I’ve finally started learning how to listen to and respect my body, although it’s definitely a journey.

  6. Well, here’s how God’s Word put it:

    Romans 14

    14 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

    5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

  7. JFS, do you have any original ideas or do you just quote verses when the guy at McDonalds asks you what you’re going to order?

  8. An aside.

    Married to a Roman Catholic these nearly ten years I wonder that you have not included our brothers and sisters from Rome in the cult of punishing self denial. They excel. (I’m convinced friends of mine would wear a shirt of haircloth if they were in vogue.) I am constantly leaning on the Scottish Presbyterians (thank God for those balanced folk) to overcome the temptation to deny myself for the sake of denying myself.

    Fundamentalism at its worse abounds and it is not limited to the dour Calvinist.

    1. I don’t doubt it; I just have very little personal experience in the realm of Catholicism and at the very least, my Catholic friends have a fun-times attitude (stay up drinking whiskey to celebrate Easter! Until 4 am! And talk about rowdy, non-ecclesiastical topics!) that many of my Protestant friends lack (be pleasant; if you show emotion you are probably sinning).

      1. Eh, I was immoderate in my comment. My husband does not fall into that camp. And self denial has many benefits, unless you (a) treat it as efficacious for salvation and/or (b) require others to deny themselves in like manner, because You Said So and You Are Holy.

        But let’s be honest, Roman Catholics through the years could shame even the Puritans.

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