February 6, 2008 in Features

Have courage to resist impulse

The Washington Post The Spokesman-Review
 

Dear Carolyn, I started to write you for advice about a specific romantic issue, but as I reread my letter I realized how utterly ridiculous it would sound to you and your average reader. As an intelligent, relatively well-adjusted, mature woman, I know in my head what is the wisest thing to do, and yet I will ignore it completely and plunge heart-first into a situation that will very likely end badly.

So my question is, why do people do this? Is it a need to learn and discover? To verify, so I don’t spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been if I hadn’t backed out? Can I say that I’m following my heart and allow that phrase to make me feel brave and noble? (Say yes, please!) – Stubborn but Curious

Yes, please!

But … no. It doesn’t take courage to do what tempts you. It takes courage to do what scares you, and sometimes the scariest thing on the relationship menu is saying no to pasta and ice cream and giving tofu a chance – or whatever else your younger self wouldn’t touch.

Or, to drag the metaphor into an ill-advised second paragraph (when I know it will only end badly): When all your choices are bad for you, the strength is in not ordering anything. But then you also need to resist picking compulsively at everyone else’s french fries.

We aren’t cracking code here. It’s hardly an act of intellectual courage to point out that we choose to indulge today because we tell ourselves – and are highly motivated to believe – that we’ll have time to fix it all tomorrow.

But understanding why we indulge, clearly, isn’t enough.

The real question, I think, is why we aren’t more motivated to be wise in the face of temptation.

Part of the answer is clearly societal; we’re pelted with temptations, but well (if deceptively) cushioned from the consequences of our stupidity. Calories are abundant, shame is scarce, and electrons can stand in as friends.

The second part of the answer, though, is as personal as the first is general. Only you can identify what’s interrupting your supply of long-term gratification – the kind you’re supposed to be getting from the beliefs, people, work, schooling, causes, hobbies into which you invest the most time and your best self. These investments are the stuff of good decisions; with them, people not only have less to gain from their temptations, but also more to lose.

You’re apparently vulnerable to the lure of the quick romantic high. You’re also the only one with the standing to ask, “Where are the holes in my life?” It’s time to figure out why – when it comes to people, at least – the stuff you want is so different from what you need.


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