This morning I heard a story which touched my heart. One of my doctor’s patients, a woman with terminal cancer, was getting ready for her child’s birthday party. This woman had a very strict diet because of her illness and told the doctor she was not going to eat from the chocolate cake she planned to serve at the party. My doctor wondered how much eating the chocolate cake would really hurt. Would it not be more meaningful for this child to have the mother eating birthday cake at what possibly was the last birthday party she will ever attend?
As I listened to the story, I was overwhelmed by the (seemingly irrational) certainty that had the mother eaten the cake, a space would have opened up for her healing. My certainty baffled me. Why would chocolate cake, filled with sugar, dairy, flour, and other commonly-accepted enemies of health, open up a space for healing, make possible (on any level) what could only be described as a miracle? The renouncement of the chocolate cake symbolized for me, at that moment, a renouncement of there being a chance to heal. It was the resistance to the disease personified by a need to control it by diet. Eating the chocolate cake became a metaphor to letting go of the need to control the process of the disease, a letting go of resistance to the illness, an opening up to the opportunity that both death and life were still possible while letting go of clinging to one or the other.
I was perhaps even more touched by the story, because, coincidentally and unrelated, I, yesterday, ate a chocolate donut. It was a gluten-free and dairy-free chocolate donut with sugar frosting. Not large, baked, but probably still full of white sugar and unhealthy fats. While eating the donut, perhaps half way through, I realized half was enough. My heart was already pumping sugar through my body. I didn’t need more. Chocolate is inflammatory, part of me whispered. It will make my reflux worse. It will make my post-nasal drip worse. Stop eating, the part asked. Another part of me, however, was concerned with the waste. What will you do with the other half? It demanded. Are you going to throw it away? And it continued to cajole me: There isn’t that much left. Just finish it. Finish what you started. And so I did, and then, guess what? I felt quite yuck.
The question I am raising in myself, however, is why, exactly, I felt yuck yesterday when I ate my donut? Was it because it was, in fact, too much sugar? Was it even true that it made the reflux or the post nasal drip worse? Or, perhaps, was my feeling of ickiness roused because other parts of me subscribe to the belief that sugar, fat, and chocolate are all bad. Was my ickiness because objectively the donut was yuck, or was it because I guilted myself into feeling yuck?
I think it’s true that in our society we have a common belief that sugary treats are unhealthy and need to be avoided. We also, contrarily, believe that sugary treats are just that, a treat, something to get comfort from, something which makes us happy. A quote on a magnet I found says: “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate, and that’s kind of the same thing.” If chocolate is happiness, why, then, do we make ourselves feel so bad eating it?
Perhaps it is not chocolate at all, but the rules we invent for ourselves that are the problem: the strict diet, the beliefs that chocolate cake (or, insert any other food item or behavior) is bad for us or our health. And perhaps not even these are the problem but our rigidity and need to adhere to these rules. I often jokingly say (and you know how there’s truth in jokes) that I can either completely abstain from chocolate or totally indulge in eating it. There is no in-between state. I need the rigid, unbending rule in order to — but then I wonder, in order to what, exactly? In order to be healthy? In order to be happy? In order to do myself no harm?
As usual, I have no answers to my questions. All I know is this certainty in my heart that sometimes chocolate cake can be healing, that flexibility can be healing. And maybe more than that, I think that the acknowledgement that we don’t need to control everything is healing. Sometimes simply letting go and eating all that chocolate cake can set an intention to heal, to grow, to move forward. Maybe even to lose weight and be happier, or freer. Perhaps rather than beating ourselves up next time that we gratify some desire, we can indulge while opening up to the possibility that this is exactly what we need right now, that this is exactly on our path, that this is exactly right and true for us, and just let go into the moment, into, potentially, the sugar rush.
I just want to say, because it’s occurring to me that maybe it sounds like I am, that I am not in any way condoning or encouraging the use of intoxicants. I hope chocolate is innocent enough for my example as something which does not alter the mind. What I am encouraging is looking into your own heart and asking how true is the belief that a certain behavior is “bad” for you. How rigid does the rule of not behaving in this way need to be? And perhaps it needs to be rigid. A diabetic may not be able to eat as much chocolate cake as they’d like. A recovering alcoholic can’t say, “I’ll have just one innocent drink.” The cancer patient, from the beginning of my post, may be completely right about avoiding chocolate. Perhaps the choice to renounce the cake allowed her one more day with her child.