THE United States national debt stands at a staggering $16.4 trillion. It is estimated to rise in the next four years to $22 trillion. The number is so overwhelming that it is hard to grasp. But one fact is clear. The U.S. government has been on the greatest spending spree in our history, with no hope of stopping on the horizon. But the government’s lack of restraint is not simply a problem. It is a symptom of something much wider in the American culture. We are becoming a nation of individuals who do not curb our desires.
Since the financial crisis in 2008, bank after bank has failed. By the end of 2011, 92 banks had failed.
This cost $7.2 billion to the FDIC. Last year, 51 bank failures cost the FDIC $2.5 billion. All too often, banks have lent money to people who want to buy houses or other commodities, but who cannot afford to pay for them. This evidences a lack of restraint and control both on the part of the individuals and the banks.
Something has gone wrong here in the United States.
We have created a culture of excess. The signs are everywhere. Throughout the centuries, people have worked long hours just to provide food for their families. But today it is otherwise. Eating disorders have become commonplace. 35.7 percent of adults are obese. And 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States are overweight. That is three times as many as just one generation ago.
Today we benefit from the availability of so many goods. In just one store, a consumer can purchase anything from a toothpick to a 60-inch TV. The lure of a bargain and the pressure of advertisements entice people to buy things that they do not need or cannot afford.
No doubt this lack of self-restraint is fed by an overabundance of goods. But, more profoundly it stems from an inability to distinguish between need and desire. Well-intentioned parents want their children to do better and have more than they did growing up. They tend to give and give and give to their children, catering to their wants and desires, even when there is no real need.
The consequences of such behavior, when repeated, are disastrous. Children do not learn how to judge between what is necessary and what is merely desired. They look for immediate self-gratification and begin to see themselves as entitled to more than they earn. Our recent financial corporate scandals are the logical outcome of such attitudes. Immediate satisfaction, even at a heavy cost to others.
We live in a time of self-indulgence. Food. Drink. Sex. Money. It is all too easy to want life on our own terms. However, we can easily see what happens when the desire for good things is satisfied without concern for a greater good. Gluttony in food and intemperance in drink lead to health problems. Promiscuity stunts the opportunity of forming good relationships and, also, brings the risk of disease. Greed closes the heart to the legitimate needs of others. In effect, this harms not only the individual concerned, but all of society as well.
When Benjamin Franklin began his self-improvement program, he decided to begin with temperance, the virtue of self-control. He realized that the individual who is self-disciplined in food and drink has a much easier time dealing with the other natural appetites for pleasure. The desire for food and drink are primal instincts in every person. They can be difficult to manage. Anyone who wishes to have mastery over his or her life has no better place to begin than gaining control over these natural appetites. Once an individual learns this control, that individual can more easily exercise restraint in other areas.
We recognize that, as a country, we are facing a financial and moral crisis. But there is a remedy.
Temperance. It begins with each of us exercising control and self-restraint. This means not giving in to self-gratification when it brings harm to someone else. It means not immediately satisfying our own desires when a greater good, such as our own health or the well-being of another, can be achieved by our self-denial.
Temperance is something hardly ever mentioned in our self-indulgent culture. Yet, it is a necessity for a healthy individual and for a healthy society. Isn’t it time to get reacquainted with temperance?