A Schmear of Morality
Living on the Wrong Side of the Butter Knife
I make several frequent complaints. One is that my trains are rarely on time. Another is that my neighbors are too loud. But the most frequent, and devastating one, is that my stomach hurts. My stomach hurts often, so often that my complaint is usually followed by the question, “Did you eat dairy?” The answer, I’m sorry to say, is usually yes.
Several things are true in regard to this situation. A) I moved to New York City shortly after college. B) Two of my favorite foods are pizza, and bagels with enough cream cheese to kill a small dog. C) In New York, two landmark foods are pizza and bagels with enough cream cheese to kill a small dog. And D), most importantly, as I have grown older, I have become more and more lactose intolerant.
It’s no wonder that my loved ones often know the source of my gastric discomfort. It’s also no wonder that I am on the receiving end of some withering looks as I grumble in pain since I have continuously done this to myself. But I keep doing it.
There’s no shortage of writing about loving something that is bad for you. Most of them are pop songs, to be fair, valuable entries into the literature in their own right. But this isn’t a boyfriend that I can’t quit, or even drugs. It’s cheese.
I comfort myself with reminders that I live in New York, the cheese capital of the world (behind every major city and a few small towns in Wisconsin). But I also live in New York, where you can’t sneeze without knocking over an overpriced dairy alternative. In my refrigerator right now is a bottle of full dairy coffee creamer. I don’t have to use it, I have bought soy or oat milk creamer before. My day only gets better if I don’t use it.
So why do I do this? Why do I love something that doesn’t love me back, and insist on consuming it even when I feel awful? This isn’t just mild discomfort, I feel abysmal after eating dairy, and none of the Lactaid-esque pills help (although I have been told that I haven’t taken enough, which I am reluctant to do, lest I end up in Lactaid rehab).
Maybe it’s hubris. My fatal flaw is believing that I am somehow better than my intestines, I just need one more round of Rocky-esque training before I won’t be in pain. This isn’t true...except that I can convince myself that it is. There is a mysterious threshold that I haven’t been able to quantify where I can eat some dairy, just a little, and it won’t bother me.
A little bit of wrongdoing, a few cookies made with butter and milk, perhaps, a mysterious amount of cream in a pasta sauce, and I won’t feel a thing. So of course I think I’m cured, maybe I just needed to build up a tolerance. Even when that doesn’t work out, I can convince myself in the grand tradition of Nietzsche that this has not killed me, therefore, it will make me stronger for the future. Well, it might not kill me, but sometimes I wish it would. It doesn’t make me stronger, it just makes me sick.
Maybe, and maybe most likely, I’m just a person. I’m a human being who likes doing the wrong thing sometimes because I want something that I shouldn’t have. I can’t give an answer as to why, beyond the petulant sounding “because I want it” or the morally inadequate “it feels good”...even if it obviously doesn’t. Why is my want so strong that it overrules consistent bodily pain?
I don’t know, but I have never been more convinced about the reason that there is a notion of Hell or some sort of divine punishment in many organized religions, than when I think about my own relationship to dairy. Of course we need some awful place beyond human experience to punish us for our wrongdoings, since clearly material punishment isn’t enough, whether it be social, mental, or gastrointestinal. Granted, I haven’t committed any major crimes so I can’t personally measure this against the material punishment I might receive, but I have certainly sinned in the eyes of many beliefs, and continue to do so.
Sisyphus, Pushing a Wheel of Brie
In fact, I think my relationship with dairy could very easily be classified under the sin of gluttony. A quick Google search confirms that gluttony isn’t just eating a lot, or greedily, it’s having a relationship to food that lacks control or is harmful. The half-drunk bottle of whole milk creamer in my fridge is basically glowing with a hellish aura.
Since I know that it’s wrong, if not in a moral sense, then at least in a physical sense, why do I keep doing it? Why am I in unnecessary pain that can easily be avoided by shopping in a different section of the grocery store? I can fix this. This is one of the few things I have control over. I don’t have to suffer.
But it is my dairy practices that have led to some spiritual reflection. Not only do I have a new sin to add to my rap sheet, but no wonder Hell, or some equivalent, is an idea beloved by missionaries and megachurch preachers alike. To be in Hell is to suffer finally, it is to face the consequences that you’ve been running from. And boy, have I been running.
I would like to make it clear again that I am not a criminal. I live a pretty moral and just life, the only person I seem to be trying to harm is myself. I want to make this clear because this whole thing is obviously a moral allegory that is also very much about cheese.
Hell, or some sort of punishment, is also a method of control. Threatening punishment is a tactic we’ve tried to employ in the material world as well but with significantly less success (just look at the stats for prison recidivism). If you have enough suffering that you cannot escape from, it scares you onto the right path to avoid it. Hell might be the only thing that could stop me from eating dairy since stomach rumbles with the same decibel count as a jet engine hasn’t worked so far.
But Hell doesn’t work if you have cheat codes. Just like with cheese, there’s some mysterious threshold that can be crossed, and that’s when the pain begins. There are things that I have done that don’t align with my moral compass that haunt me, that cause a similar sensation in my stomach to that sensation about 3 hours after eating a full-sized calzone. I’ve lied before to people I care about, and even if I haven’t faced consequences, the guilt sits heavily in my stomach.
And then there are other things I’ve done that I don’t have a bellyache about, that make me wonder if maybe a career in the mafia might be a viable alternative if this whole writing thing goes south. It’s probably not, because the things that I don’t have a bellyache about I can justify. I only stole from something that steals from others. I only lied to someone who lied to me. I only had the cookies that had dairy in them because it would be so rude to refuse them, and people roll their eyes when you say you’re lactose intolerant.
Eating cheese (and as an extension, morality) is tricky. Pain I wouldn’t inflict on other people is fine to inflict on myself, if it means I can order a sandwich the way I like it. I am in completely unnecessary pain so often. If a doctor were to do to me what I do to myself, I could sue for medical malpractice.
Sometimes bad things feel good. Sometimes they’re worth it. Sometimes it hurts for a while. I haven’t learned my lesson. I don’t know if I will, actually, and it makes me glad that I am having this crisis over something as socially benign and economically sensible as cheese. But looking at the world through my dairy habit has given me something, other than a stomachache and jawline acne.
We bandy about the phrase “I just don’t understand how someone could do that” a lot, about a lot of things. I do, at least theoretically. I know what it feels like to do something wrong, or hurtful, and to keep doing it despite the consequences. These things are minor, usually, and there’s a great deal of moral and social room between incomprehensible crimes and having an emergency pack of cheddar in the back of the crisper. But we don’t need an exact equivalence to conceive of something. If I can keep hurting myself, I could hurt other people. If I can ignore the physical pain in my stomach, I could learn to ignore the moral pain, too. Or, if I viewed the issue (sandwich, ice cream, or ethical quandary) as necessary, I might not even register the pain.
I understand more about why and how bad things happen, and why they keep happening. What I don’t understand is how to stop them. I can’t even stop myself. But maybe if I subject myself to some more bagel-induced stomach aches, I’ll figure that part out. You know, for the betterment of society, of course.