According to Charlie Brown, “All you need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Mae West raised the bar by saying, “If a little is great, and a lot is better, then way too much is just about right.” Want a third verse of the same song? Okay, then how about this one from Katharine Hepburn: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
As we’ve heard before, the trouble with trouble is that it starts out as fun. As Charlie put it, a little chocolate (substitute your favorite vice there) may not hurt. But then things escalate. Moderation in all things is expelled, and something similar to a form of hedonism is invited in. Mae West becomes our prophet of choice: Way too much becomes just about right.
My son Adam, who is a substance abuse counselor, sometimes says: “No one becomes an addict through abstinence.” One lie (sometimes a little white one) seems innocent enough, but each lie requires an awfully good memory – and sometimes the ability to create another lie to cover the first, and on and on, until truth seems no longer an option. And when that happens, way too much doesn’t feel at all right. A momentary sexual indiscretion becomes a marriage-ending affair. A one-time decision to cheat on one’s taxes morphs into the expensive (and sometimes freedom-threatening) reality of an audit. A word carelessly spoken, even if in jest, becomes a raging fire of gossip that destroys reputations and ends friendships. An unrestrained expression of anger becomes the source of painful retribution or of ruined relationships. Not every poor choice has irreversible consequences, mind you, but sometimes some do. And when that happens, what was done can never be undone and what was said can never be unsaid. And it feels anything but “just about right.”
Maybe the key is to exercise sound judgment when it comes to ethics, especially when it involves the well-being of others. I agree with Charlie (and, to an extent, with Ms. Hepburn): An occasional chocolate is a good thing, and once in a while ignoring the rules and having a second piece of chocolate is fun. But my fun should end at the point when it could become a source of pain to someone else. Jesus established that principle when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Self-love is a priority, but never when it detracts from or diminishes love of neighbor. If all people could just learn that one lesson, what a different place this world would be.
On staff at Marble, several of us have a little phrase we throw around (most often while teasing each other): “Better choices!” Someone will make a remark or express a feeling (“I have half a mind to....”), and someone else will quickly pipe up: “Better choices!” But, despite the fact that around here we often use that phrase in a joking way, it’s a pretty important thought to consider. When I am about to indulge in a behavior that could have negative consequences, is it not wise to pause momentarily and ask myself the question, “Is there a better choice that I should make?” Is there a different word to speak or a different action to take? A friend of mine told me once that before making critical decisions (especially those with moral implications), she always whispers two words: “Then what?” If I do this, then what? If I say that, then what? Those two words help her make better choices.
Jesus’ words are our key to making better choices: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Indulge. Enjoy. Have the occasional second piece of chocolate. But always remember that we are called not simply to love ourselves but also to love our neighbors, and the former should not be done at the expense of the latter.