I have to admit that I picked up We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess because I thought it would annoy me. I saw a bomb made out of a chocolate-coated doughnut on the cover and thought, “Another screed blaming all the world’s ills on people the author considers fat!” I was annoyed less than I anticipated, laughed, and even learned, more than I anticipated.
Daniel Akst is a journalist whose basic premise is the question, “Why is self-control so difficult?” He points out that some of the modern obsession with self-control is just silly. After all, you don’t have to control yourself if there isn’t abundance. “The problems of freedom and affluence–of managing desire in a landscape rich with temptation–are just the kind all of us should want to have.”
On the other hand, he points out that giving in to our temptations does have real and often strongly negative consequences for individuals as well as for society as a whole. After years of education everyone knows that smoking can be destructive to an individual, but who would have guessed in 2005 that buying a large house could affect society so much?
He cites recent studies in self-control from the areas of neurology and psychology, and looks into the science of addiction and the hereditary basis for self-control. An interesting example is the marshmallow test where small children have to choose whether to have a marshmallow now or wait until later and get a reward. It appears that self-control has a hereditary basis and also that, “Youthful self-control predicted success in later life.” This, of course, begs all sorts of questions about responsibility and whether addicts (of any sort) can really control themselves. Akst points out how these questions are central to stories as old as “Adam and Eve,” The Odyssey and Hamlet.
For those of us who are feeling a bit guilty of too many indulgences in the holiday season, keep in mind that parties, gifts, and special food are rituals that we often indulge in only once a year. If we take into account, “how helpful ritual can be in promoting pleasure by keeping it within bounds” then one eggnog per year is not all that bad!
His writing is dense and erudite (I sometimes had to run to the dictionary) but Akst is conversational enough to be very readable. He was sometimes very funny, as when he said, “In the early nineteenth century … Americans drank so much it’s a miracle our country’s symbol isn’t a pink elephant instead of a bald eagle.”
You don’t have to agree with everything Akst writes (and you’re certain to disagree with something) but We Have Met the Enemy is useful to everyone who has ever done anything that they knew wasn’t sensible (and who hasn’t ever eaten that last cupcake, sneaked a cigarette, bought something on their credit card just because they wanted it, put off boring paperwork or vacuuming by reading a blog?).
Check the WRL catalog for We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess.