The Merit of Moderation

Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

Have you ever had to deal with that perfect food person? It’s the one who never violates a single dietary rule. This person worries if their calorie count for the day is too high and they worry if it is too low. They want to make sure that their macros are perfectly in balance and that they get enough of every trace element. That person wouldn’t think of eating gluten or refined sugar or non-organic produce. Simply being in the same room with high-fructose corn syrup causes this person to break out in a rash.

That’s who I think about when I read the passage for today. Yeah, this only applies to eating as I described it above, but it could apply to anything.

Don’t be excessively righteous, and don’t be overly wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Don’t be excessively wicked, and don’t be foolish. Why should you die before your time?

Ecclesiastes 7:16-17

Too Righteous?

I don’t really need to worry about being excessively righteous, but I suppose some people do. I don’t need to be invited to entertain a little bit wickedness, but again, I suppose that’s an issue for some.

So what in the world is this passage doing in here? We’ve established over the last few weeks that our author is not your typical Sunday-School teacher, but at this point he seems to have gone off the rails.

I struggle with these verses, but then I think of the food nazi described at the outset. There are others who live by a rigorous standard in other areas. The Pharisees who spread such cheer in the gospels are types out of this mold. They were so focused on obeying the laws and the interpretations of the laws and the interpretations of the interpretations that they couldn’t really understand the nuances. They didn’t recognize that healing somebody on the Sabbath was a way of honoring the Sabbath. Instead all they saw was the rule. That, I think, is excessive righteousness.

At the same time, we can learn to deal with our occasional mistakes. We’re going to be a little bit wicked. That’s just the nature of things, so we’re best off not paralyzing ourselves when our perfection is shattered.

Getting in Tune

If I’m going to take this passage and use it in a meaningful way, I believe that the first step is to determine which of these tendencies–excessive righteousness or excessive wickedness–is my greater temptation. I don’t think that Koheleth is inviting us to become lax, but he is telling us not to obsess on our behavior.

We are entirely capable of making an idol out of our “rightness” or of allowing our “wrongness” to cripple us. Instead, we should simply live as wisely and as righteously as we can manage.

Why Health Headlines Seem Unbalanced

scaleAn article on U.S. News plays on a prurient movie and some fairly common sense dietary advice to fill a writer’s assignment. The author, Janet Helm, doesn’t give us the full fifty shades of grey when it comes to nutrition but stops (mercifully perhaps) at five. The basic premise is this:

People frequently speak about food in absolutes – this food is bad, or this diet is best. Well, it’s not that simple: Nutrition is not always so black or white.

I probably sound a bit dismissive of Ms. Helm’s comments, but that really isn’t the case. She is, after all a well trained dietician, a credential that inclines me to consider her innocent until proven guilty.

Why is she able to write an article that basically says “moderation in everything” and have it seem worthy of publication? I’d suggest that there are three reasons for that, and they get to the heart of our intelligent handling of health advice.

1. Extremes scream.

Which article are you more apt to read? Which TV news teaser are you more apt to wait through the commercials to watch? “Nutritionists say a balanced diet is important” or “If you eat Fettuccine Alfredo, make sure your cardiologist is on call.” This last pronouncement was perhaps the most absurd statement ever made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In a communications environment cluttered with all sorts of noise and competing stimuli, it’s understandable that people feel the need to scream. Unfortunately, that screaming sometimes means sending the wrong message.

2. You can’t sell moderation.

Everybody has a message to sell, but many have a product. Frankly, unless you are the American Produce Aisle Trade Group, you’re almost certainly not selling moderation and good sense. Instead, you’re selling this supplement or that diet pill. You’re declaring beef as “what’s for dinner” or pronouncing pork as “the other white meat.” “Got milk?”

Everybody is selling something, and most of them cannot make money by suggesting that the potential sales be split up among half a dozen providers. There’s just no money in moderation.

3. Health writers just don’t get it.

Finally we have to recognize that health writers, especially journalists knocking out stories on deadline, often got to the health beat not because of their high level of interest in nutrition or their scientific acumen but because they drew the short straw. “Gee, boss, I can choose between the White House, covering the war, or doing the health news? Give me the veggies!”

Many journalists do not understand science well enough. Some of them simply cannot read a scientific study well enough to actually understand what it says. They’ll read that consuming butter leads to an increased chance of developing cuticle cancer and not recognize that a small increase of a tiny probability is not nearly as significant as breathless statements make it sound.

I can’t say much good about the other shades of grey, but I have to applaud Janet Helms’ willingness to recognize that moderation in eating is something we need more.