“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.
Probably, 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.