Forego self-indulgence and do the right thing


I didn’t feel like going to work today. After driving the kids to school, I returned home and goofed off. I poured a fresh cup of coffee, sat in my quiet house and read the newspaper. Finished with the paper, I knew I should get to work, but I made a phone call instead. After that, I was distracted by an intriguing headline in a magazine near the phone, so I read the article. I knew I should be working, but I just didn’t feel like it. I did feel hungry, so I peeled an orange and ate it. After that, I decided to take a shower. Surely, then, I told myself, I’ll feel like going to work.

I can get away with indulging myself this way because, unlike most people, I don’t leave home to work. I don’t punch a timecard. No co-workers, employees, clients or customers await my arrival. If I don’t go to work, nothing terrible happens — at least not right away. I can go to work late, and no one’s the wiser! Yes, I am blessed and cursed with the freedom of working at home. As handy as this arrangement is, it tests my character. A serious weakness therein is my tendency to procrastinate, something I’ve always done quite well.

Indeed, I’m not only good at procrastinating, I’m also good at relying on my feelings to dictate how I behave. As part of the generation who coined the phrase, “If it feels good, do it” I still find myself struggling with self-indulgence. I’m ashamed to admit how many times in my life I’ve let how I feel override doing what I know is right. (In such cases, my mind works like this: I really should visit my friend in the nursing home, but I’ll feel awkward if she doesn’t recognize me, and places like that make me feel so uncomfortable, and I feel so guilty because I neglected our relationship ….)

We live in a culture that’s constantly telling us we are unfulfilled until we feel happy, until we satisfy our desires. We’re encouraged to sacrifice just about anything, from our children to our marriages to our morals, if doing so makes us feel better. If a pregnant woman doesn’t feel ready to be a mother, she can legally end her pregnancy. If a man lacks feelings for his wife, he can file for a divorce. If a teenager feels like engaging in premarital sex, as long as he’s using “protection,” he’s given society’s approval to indulge. Indeed, many social mores and values that were created to restrain us from our worst impulses are now thought of as unrealistic, oppressive, unfair. In many circles, even obeying the Ten Commandments is considered quaint.

Advertisers are expert at making us feel deprived, restless. Feeling bored? Go see a movie, shop for a new dress, take a vacation. Feeling anxious? Buy more insurance. Visit a therapist. Call a psychic. Feeling lonely? Go to a nightclub. Take out a personal ad. Call an escort service. Feeling afraid? Buy an alarm system. Learn to shoot a gun. Sign up for a self-defense class. With all these ways to satisfy our cravings, fulfill our needs, calm our fears, why should we allow ourselves to feel anything less than perfectly content? Why should we bother to search for the reasons behind the distrust, the restlessness, the stress in our daily lives?

Because we’re encouraged to focus so intently on our feelings — and on doing everything within our power to eliminate the unpleasant ones — it’s no wonder we sense the fabric of our daily lives unraveling. How can we maintain strong bonds within our families when each member is urged to put his own feelings first?

Just as I struggle with procrastination and making myself sit down to work, our self-indulgent society has a hard time facing its problems and fixing them. Perhaps the first step for all of us is to develop the discipline to behave as if our feelings are not important. Indeed, in the scheme of things, they aren’t. Yes, regardless of how compelling, how tempting they can be, our feelings are insignificant when compared with our responsibility to do the right thing.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 6 to 14.