(preceded by a few beautiful bars of music from Matt Gordeuk)
“Moderation: A Little of What You Like”
Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
The journey to see the Oracle at Delphi, in Ancient Greece, went along a steep road up the hillside known as the Sacred Way. To get to see the oracle, you had to travel up this path. Complimenting the beauty of the mountain were hundreds and hundreds of statues, on either side of the sacred way, donated by people who had seen the Oracle, in gratitude for their success in battles or in fortune. And then at last, walking up the mountain, you’d see Delphi, the temple complex. It was multiple magnificent buildings: you can still see the ruins today, 2,500 years later. And at the heart of them all was Apollo’s Temple where the oracle sat and gave her pronouncements on the future. Waiting in line there with everyone else waiting to see the oracle – and it was always a long line – your eyes might hit upon an inscription on the Temple: meden agan, “nothing in excess.”
“Nothing in excess.” Or, as it is often translated, “everything in moderation.” It seems a strange slogan to be on the side of the Temple at Delphi, this place of mystery and esoteric wisdom. It seems like the kind of advice given by a diet coach or a tax accountant rather than a mystic seer. “Nothing in excess.” And yet, this concept was not just inscribed on this one famous temple in Ancient Greece, it was central to ancient Greek thought – and many of our own thoughts, today, come from Ancient Greece, perhaps more than we know.
This year’s theme is “Living a Visionary Life”, and today’s topic is how moderation can be visionary. I was inspired to this sermon by hearing a lecture a few years back by the Reverend Galen Guengerich, the Unitarian Universalist minister of All Souls Church in New York City. Rev. Galen was talking about his concept of the seven virtues for Unitarian Universalist living, a topic that deeply interested me, and the virtue that surprised me the most – and others, too – was “temperance.” Not a lot of us in the audience would have listed temperance in the top seven “necessary virtues” for Unitarian Universalists – it’s a word we associate with that ill-fated attempt to ban alcohol of the 1920s. The word has been banished from our lexicon, and yet, Galen explained, we would be wise to consider the role that temperance may play in our lives.
I chose “moderation” instead of the word temperance, but the two words have very similar etymological roots – to temper or to moderate means to be able to change something, to hold the shape in as it begins to be slipping away. Temper or moderate means keeping the extremes in check. A moderator is someone who shapes the process and tone of a discourse. To moderate or temper, then, is to be able to control our own lives, to keep our own lives’ shape over time. This, I think, is of visionary import. For its all very well to have a vision, to be inspired – but to keep it, over the course of a lifetime, it would be well to know how to practice moderation, and just what moderation means.
The ancient Greeks did a lot of thinking about the meaning of life. You didn’t go to a philosophy academy in those days to get a Ph.D; you went to learn how to live well. What does it mean to live a good life? This they asked over and over again, and the different schools came up with different answers to this question.
And one of the main things the Greeks noticed when they looked at a human life is that there’s a curious relationship between desire and happiness. At first glance, it looks pretty simple: we want something; if we get it, we’re happy, and if we don’t, we’re not. Oh, I’d love an ice cream cone – “mmm, delicious.” Or “no, I can’t have it because this jerk is only midway through his sermon.” So the connection between happiness and desire seems pretty clear, but over time, it’s a little different. It’s a little more problematic. Because for one thing, we don’t always get what we want. And we’re not just talking about ice cream cones, are we. Buddy Guy, the great bluesman, was interviewed on the radio yesterday. He’s 77 years old, and more importantly he’s immortal, and he was asked about the blues. “I always tell people,” he said, “if you don’t understand the blues, try living a little longer.” The blues are a part of life. The idea of the person who’s basically comfortable throughout it all – well, that’s just a myth. As far as I know.
More than that, not only do we not always get what we want, but when we do get what we want, we tend to want something else soon after, and this makes us unhappy. A young man says, I wish I lived an apartment, had a place of my own. He moves in with a few friends, his new roommates, and he’s happy – paying rent, his own place awesome. But then, you know what happens. Does that for a year or two, then thinks, “wouldn’t it be great if I had my own place, a house.” Then maybe a bigger house. Or more furnishings. Desire is always chipping away at us, asking for more, more, more. We know all about this right? “X” number of shopping days until Christmas; we’re familiar with this.
Now all the ancient Greek schools realized this facet of human nature. But they had different responses to it. The Epicureans, led by Epicurus, advised us to go ahead and seek pleasure. Why deny the good things in life, they said. But, they added, try and keep your pleasures simple. If you can be happy on a meal of bread and water, how much happier are you going to be then the person who needs a six course meal to really say, “wow that was great”. I mean, if a walk around your neighborhood makes you happy, then you are set for life. Simple pleasures, enjoy them, that’s epicureanism.
Without this moderation in the “pursuit of happiness”, the American dream turns into a nightmare. Our 18th and 19th century forebears understood this. They knew that moderation was needed to keep pleasure-seeking in check.
I’ll tell you a story. I was in France this summer. Now, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but French food is really, really, really good. And as a foodie, I was loving it. But I was looking at the menus of this one town, and I noticed, all these menus are all pretty much the same. I mean, they all had steak, and pork, and a whitefish, usually with summer squash, and almost everything had green beans. The different restaurants shuffled the order around a bit, and the ingredients were shuffled too, but each menu was pretty strikingly similar. And I thought, “wow, these French aren’t very inventive!” So I asked my mother about it – a French teacher, she’s been a Francophile for longer than I’ve been alive – and she responded, “well, yeah, because it’s summer. And this is what there is in summer. So this is what they cook with.”
Oh! Oh! Of course! They cook those dishes, because that’s what they have! So who’s the crazy one: me, who’s saying, “well it would be great to have a pineapple quinoa salad on top, I’m so tired of these outrageously delicious green beans,” or the French, who say, well, this is what we have, so this is what we’re eating. (I should add that the French love other cuisines, like Indian and Chinese – but they also love what’s around the corner, the incredible vegetables they have in season). To have delicious green beans every day – it’s all about the simple pleasures.
Cynics, by contrast, said don’t bother with any of that stuff. They were quite earnest: cynics often walked around in basically rags, without a formal tunic or sandals. They embraced poverty, they said, all of that stuff – fame, fortune, a good name – all is just mishegoss, empty wind. Desire is a source of human misery; get rid of it, they said. They would get rid of their tunic and sandals, walk around in rags, give away their possessions. Also, they didn’t care anything for reputation, didn’t care what anybody thought of them. All of that stuff – be it material possessions or esteem and repute – all of it just got in the way of true happiness. A poor people can be happy as easy as a rich one; what matters is
our inner state.
The benefits of the life of the cynic can take a little while to come through. There’s a romance at first to giving away all your possessions and joining the circus; but on day two or three the adjustment you just made comes home to you and it feels hard. The Cynics acknowledge this. The rewards come when the attachments to all that stuff slowly fade away, and we discover we are living a new kind of life. Maybe a literate one.
There’s an amazing short film out there, by the artist Miranda July, called, “Are You the Favorite Person of Anyone?” It’s three and a half minutes long. The premise of it is very simple. A man with a clipboard asks passers by, “are you anyone’s favorite person?” The first woman thinks about it, says, “oh yeah, definitely – my ex-girlfriend.” Then the surveyor asks, “how sure are you? Extremely certain, fairly certain, pretty sure, not sure…” And she says extremely certain, at first, but under question, revises that to only kinda sure. And she’s crestfallen, you can see, but then goes on her way.
The second guy to stop for the surveyor is asked if he’s the favorite person of anybody, and he says right off the bat, “no.” How certain? Extremely certain, not a flicker of doubt in his voice. The surveyor is so taken aback by this, he then asks the interviewee if he wants a fresh orange! I guess he’s just trying to help in any way he can. So the man being interviewed asks if he can take two, and the surveyor says, “sure, take three!” And then the third man doesn’t want anything to do with the interview, doesn’t want to be bothered. And that’s the whole movie.
Now, one thing I found fascinating about this movie is I watched it online, and there were comments underneath, and most of the commentators – in my humble opinion – didn’t get it. So many said things like, “this movie really made me think, I just realized I’m not anybody’s favorite person, and it has made me so sad.” I mean, the posts were so depressed if they weren’t from 2008 I wanted to write back and say, “don’t jump! It’ll be OK!”
The thing is, it seemed to me, the second guy, who wasn’t anybody’s favorite person didn’t care that he wasn’t anyone’s favorite person. It didn’t faze him one bit. You could see the first woman’s face drop – and this was because her ex-girlfriend, presumably someone not that involved in her life anymore, might, possibly, have another favorite person. And the Mike White character couldn’t care less. Why he’s so sure, when he has a girlfriend, isn’t explained – maybe she has a kid and he knows he can’t “compete” with that bond, or maybe there’s someone else, we’re not told. But he’s happy as a clam. Because after all, what does it matter that you’re somebody’s favorite person? Who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to happiness. It’s mishegoss.
Then, as a kind of middle path, you have the stoics. The stoics said its ok to have things: material wealth is ok. Fame and good repute are ok – it’s ok to be respected for what you do. But we should be ready to let these things go. If you’re familiar with Buddhism, and the story of the Buddha, you might see the similarities here. Buddha thought avoiding sorrow was not the path to enlightenment, and he rejected the extreme paths of near-starvation and extreme privation as paths. He chose the middle path, the path which included the material world, but practiced non-attachment to it.
The Stoics would regularly undertake a meditation whereby they would imagine losing the things in their life – both the material things and the intangible blessings, like our relationships, good health and frame of mind, and the qualities of our life. They saw at least two benefits to this. One, it would help prepare you for when you did lose these things – and we lose things in life, all the time, especially as we get older. There’s no way, of course, to really prepare in one’s imagination for the really big losses, like the loss of a special person in our life, but we can at least remind ourselves that these losses await us. Secondly, these meditations remind us not to take our blessings for granted – to be reminded of how special it is to have these things in our life, these blessings that will not last forever.
We often imagine that happiness are going to be about the big “yesses” in our life. Like, “yes, I will take that promotion,” or “yes, I’ll take it as a lump sum payment, thanks.” Or even “I do.” And yesses are important, they do shape a life to some extent, but in the day to day our lives are shaped at least as much by what we say no to, and how we temper our everyday activities. Every day, we have the chance to say, no this is what my vision is, so I’m not going to do that, or that, or that. Because if we have this bold vision for our life, we can serve it by clearing out all the stuff that is extraneous and superficial.
Moderation is both natural and unnatural. The natural world has a way of keeping everything in balance. But as individuals, moderation is a learned skill. Our kids can teach us many spiritual virtues – wonder, joy, love – but, with exceptions, they aren’t great at moderation. We need to learn it. It’s a grown-up ability.
And society makes it even harder these days, because our society naturally capitalizes on the areas we find it hardest to express moderation. One example is sugar: in the wild, human beings rarely come across much sugar, so when we find some sugar cane, we can eat and enjoy it. Sugar is healthy in small amounts. But when you concentrate sugar, put it in huge amounts in a small package, and make it readily available, well, moderation comes in handy – and is hard to practice. It’s the same with sexuality – which is healthy and beautiful and good, AND is triggered in an unhealthy way by an unrealistic culture of hyper-sexuality. And as for fame – it’s the supposed currency of today, enjoyed by so few yet yearned for by so many. And for what? What is really gained by it?
The good news, every day we have the power to shape our lives. And we can do that, temper the quality of our lives, in powerful ways with just a few key decisions. We can decide to focus on how to build to real happiness, taking to heart the advice of our religious ancestor, William Ellery Channing:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common – this is my symphony.”
Plato, by the way, said that the inscription “nothing in excess” was just an afterthought. The inscription that really mattered had been written on the Temple of Apollo much earlier: “Know thyself.” If we know who we are, and what really matters to us, we can make ourselves happy, in simple ways every day. Every day, we have the opportunity to practice joy.