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The fine line between flagellation and respect
Drinking habits and graveyard diners // God, guilt, and griddle grease
Every Sunday my dad took us first to church, then to the grocery store, and every Sunday the first items in the cart were donuts from the bakery section. A little treat, I suppose, for our troubles — something to keep us from resenting the whole routine. I always picked Boston cream with chocolate frosting.
I never hated church but I don’t think that had anything to do with the donuts. They were nice and all. So was church: pretty music, pretty windows, pretty girls. Sometimes I got annoyed when it kept me from a Saturday night sleepover with my friends, but on the whole, I don’t remember dreading our Sunday morning routine. I know plenty of people my age who were raised Catholic, who feel emotionally traumatized by the experience, and who now harbor visceral anti-church sentiments. They hate smell of incense, for example. I don’t. I always kind of liked church and for me incense evokes not bitterness but nostalgia.
I was confirmed in the eighth grade and after that my church attendance declined steadily. I’m 24 now and it’s been years since I went at all. I don’t believe in God — at least, not the way that Catholics do — so I’d feel weird going to church, even though part of me misses it. I don’t really have any routines at all anymore. Church gave my life a rhythm and a structure without which I sometimes feel a sort of chaotic emptiness. The irony isn’t lost on me that the closest thing I do have to a routine is also the thing that brings me closest to a church of any kind.
Habit is a better word for it than routine. On mornings after I drink too much, I drag myself to the most mediocre diner in a two mile radius of my apartment. I only feel compelled to do this after I drink too much in solitude; somehow a collective hangover leaves a different taste in my mouth. I don’t do it weekly or even monthly. I drink alone often enough but it’s rare that I really overdo it. Every once in a while, though, I wake up post-solitary drinking binge, and I force myself to gorge on shitty diner food.
From my current apartment this impulse carries me to a diner in Roxborough. If you stand across the street, the diner is flanked on the right by an old stone church building, seemingly vacant, but most recently home to the non-denominational Epic Church. Behind the diner and on its left is a cemetery. It’s a strange place to sell breakfast. When the cook goes out back for a smoke break, he stands in a patch of shade cast by trees growing on church grounds, and some of his cigarette’s spent ashes come to rest among blades of cemetery grass. The diner looks like it’s about to be beamed up by God or swallowed up by the grave.
I walk in and I find a stool at the counter from which I have a clear view of the griddle, so that I can see every move the cook makes. I watch bacon grease ooze out from under the black cast iron grill press, looking like a gas bubble seeping up to the surface of a tar pit. I picture all the griddle grease dripping down into a crudely dug chamber that runs underneath the diner and the church and the cemetery, and eventually the chamber turns into a sink hole, and 10,000 years later a team of paleontologists excavate perfectly preserved remains of everything that fell in — like Pompeii but ruined by an infinitely stupider Vesuvius.
It’s the kind of diner where, having ordered toast, you know to expect an island of half-melted margarine slapped slightly off-center onto a lukewarm slice of bread. I purposely order scrapple because it’s the grossest thing on the menu, and I watch with disgust as the cook douses the grayish rectangle with Crisco. I don’t mind not knowing what’s in a hot dog because hot dogs are the good kind of gross, the kind for which, in the moment, the taste almost makes up for the discomfort of knowingly consuming mystery meat that will leave you with fat-stuffed arteries. Scrapple offers no such solace. It’s a slab of mush with ostensibly animal origins that — even cooked to a crisp on the outside — leaves your tastebuds feeling like whatever they’re sensing is only barely edible enough to swallow. I choke down every bite and wash it down with a mug of crappy diner coffee — you know the type — that tastes like overcooked cardboard.
A subpar breakfast doesn’t exactly qualify as a flogging, but it’s of a similar spirit. I didn’t cultivate the habit with the conscious purpose of self-inflicted punishment. I more so just ended up eating shitty diner food after solitary drinking binges because I’d wake up feeling unworthy of anything better. But what is this sense of unworthiness and where does it come from? How to explain the feeling that I deserve to gag on scrapple?
It’s not as though, absent this habit, I wouldn’t suffer any consequences for over-indulging. A hangover is a built-in form of punishment. But the inevitability of a hangover, I think, only makes the morning-after guilt even worse: I knew I’d wake up hungover but I drank too much anyway. Now my mind is all foggy, and I’m running on empty, and what might I have done with my day if I didn’t feel like garbage? What might I have done last night if I wasn’t busy earning a hangover? What an idiot I am — no self-restraint, no discipline, repeating the same patterns of self-destructive behavior every so often like clockwork. Idiots still have to eat, but they shouldn’t eat well, so back to the diner we go.
Do idiots have to eat, though? Actual self-flagellation tends to be practiced alongside other forms of self-denial, like fasting. Christians call this the mortification of flesh, which is an effort to kill off one’s sinful nature and get closer to God. Maybe part of the motivation is to avoid suffering in the afterlife by accepting it willingly in this life. I don’t believe in an afterlife and therefore lack eternal torment as a motivating force, which might be why I just eat scrapple instead of starving and flogging myself. But whether or not I believe in a Father Almighty who will judge my sins and either accept me into Heaven or damn me to Hell, I can’t shake the sense of shame that motivates believers to repent.
Maybe the sense of shame is a mental habit that, having been instilled in me slowly over the course of my church-going years, has an unstoppable momentum, such that even though I no longer believe the doctrine I was taught, it still shapes my character. There’s probably some truth to that, but I don’t know that I ever truly feared God or the prospect of Hell. My relationship with God was more like: I’d be shooting around on the basketball hoop in my driveway, and I’d look up at the sky and say “if you’re real, make this shot go in,” and more often than not, it wouldn’t go in. Obviously that was juvenile and ridiculous, and in fact a direct violation of the doctrine I was being taught, but I was ten and I didn’t take church very seriously. Even so, going to church and confession taught me to evaluate myself with a critical eye and hold myself accountable for my misdeeds. So some of my modern day diner punishment can be chalked up to momentum. But not all of it. More of it, I think, can be explained by the moral convictions I hold today than by those I was exposed to as a child.
The universe itself, and human consciousness of it, are mysteries that we’re fortunate to be able to ponder. For all the suffering around us and the cold indifference of the universe, existence is a blessing. That we get to experience even a single moment of joy, to appreciate any beauty whatsoever, to know however fleetingly what it feels like to love or be loved — these alone are worth the price of existence. We may never know for sure what forces set the universe in motion. We may never fully understand the evolutionary leap from abiotic to biotic or from “lower” forms of consciousness to human consciousness. And yet here we are, mysteriously and seemingly against all odds, with the opportunity to make of our lives what we can.
We are here not only with this opportunity, but also with an inborn lust to seize it. This lust is stronger and survives for longer in some than in others, but it’s there to some extent inside us all. We have some conception that our lives can be lived well or poorly, and we wish to live them well. While I reject much of Christian doctrine, I believe that living well requires following Christ’s commandments to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies. There are in fact no boundaries at which the necessity to love comes to an end, because our neighbors are not atomistic individuals separable from the rest of the cosmos, but integral components of it, such that loving your neighbor requires extending your love outwards into spacetime indefinitely. My conception of God is not the Christian conception of God. I believe that God is love, that love is the creative process through which goodness comes into existence, and that this process is a fundamental mystery of which humans can only comprehend fragments. I believe that, though we can never fully comprehend love, our universe and human beings emerged through it. Having emerged through love, we are now indelibly imbued with it. Though it is not the only force operative within the cosmos, nor the only impulse operative within the human spirit, it is the only force through which the cosmos is capable of further evolution, and it is the only impulse through which human beings have any hope of flourishing.
I conceive of human existence, then, as an opportunity to make life as good as possible — an opportunity best seized by following the love commandments as faithfully as possible. Joy, beauty, and love make life worth living. Joy, beauty, and love arise only through love. We flourish when we both plant the seeds and harvest the fruits of love. When I feel shame, I feel that I’m unworthy of this harvest. I feel unworthy of the harvest when I feel I’ve failed to plant the seeds that gave rise to it. In other words, I deny myself the fruits of love when I believe I’m guilty of a failure of love. I won’t let myself eat well if I know I drank excessively when it was inappropriate to do so. On a random week night when there’s no social utility to the drinking, all that excessive indulgence does is make it harder to wake up and act with love the next day.
The question, though, is whether this fallen form of self-flagellation is itself an act of love or a failure of it. Does choking down scrapple at a graveyard diner make me less likely to binge in solitude down the road? Or does it just make me even more miserable, and thus less able to love, in the here and now — without any meaningful long-term benefit?
The central fact is that the shame is real, and it hurts, and it doesn’t just go away if you ignore it. If you don’t do something with it, it will do something with you. Negative emotions make you want to do negative things; I don’t think I’ll ever wake up after binge drinking and be eager speed along my recovery by eating a healthy breakfast so that I can get back to trying to do good things in the world. To make myself do so would be to stifle my sense of shame, and as soon as a stifled emotion disappears from sight, it comes back to bite you. Better to accept the negative emotion and work with it. Better to eat scrapple. Better to become so disgusted with myself at the graveyard diner that I resolve to stop binging in solitude once and for all.
Or, for a little while, anyhow.