PREFACE (January 2, 2022): My thoughts on some of these things have evolved since the time of writing. For one thing, I want to be clear that I have eaten sugar since then, though on much healthier terms than I was when binging half gallons on a semiregular basis. For another, I’ve become much more critical of many lines of spiritual and self-help thinking that I had adopted at the time of writing. I’m still grateful for what I learned from the experience described below, but don’t assume that I necessarily hold to absolutely everything said here or how I said it. It’s a product of the kind of development I was going through at the time, something I don’t believe I’d write today. But if that’s helpful for you to read, fantastic. If it’s not, I can instead direct you to some cute dog pictures. Cheers.
It’s been about 221 days since I’ve eaten ice cream. Or cookies, or candy, but ice cream was the real deal for me. Even after moving to Columbus, home of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, I haven’t had a single spoon. And yet, even with that much distance between me and my last scoop, I still find myself craving it now and then. Perhaps not with the urgency I once felt, sure, but “craving” is definitely the word I’d use. So while I suspect I’d be much worse off in quarantine if I were still downing half gallons of Blue Bell Cookie Two-Step on a regular basis, the way I used to, I don’t know whether I can say I’m happier for my abstinence.
That’s annoying, isn’t it? Aren’t happiness and satisfaction supposed to mean transcending shallow cravings and desires? At least, that’s what comes to mind whenever I hear spiritual teachers, coaches, or politicians talk about happiness—being free from want, lacking nothing, a world in which Blue Bell doesn’t even register in my autonomic nervous system the way it would (and still does) at the end of a stressful day. All of which is a delightful thought, for sure. But even if my current reality has fallen short of that ideal, if I’m being honest with myself, the pursuit of that brand of happiness never actually helped me make healthier eating decisions, and it certainly wasn’t what ultimately led to a change in my behavior 221 days ago.
What did seem to make a difference was finally noticing the way my caveman brain, my evolutionary survival neurology, latched onto ice cream and associated it with safety and security. Once upon a time, that ancestral brain saw the glow of a flame and associated it with warmth, comfort, light, safety, survival (and occasionally danger, but that’s another story). Hundreds of thousands of years hence, the glow of Blue Bell Cookie Two-Step happily provided the same feeling of security during my last year in Miami and the few months I lived in Houston (when Target happened to have it in stock, that is; nobody wants Cherry Vanilla, you heathens).
This survival panic, I found, was the source not of the cravings themselves but the urgency with which they arose, a belief beyond beliefs nested in millions of years of evolution that I was going to die from exposure if I didn’t get that ice cream. It was only upon noticing this internal, fight-or-flight logic that a change in behavior started to make sense to me.
With this new perspective, did I decide to change my behavior and not eat ice cream anymore? Hard to say for certain. And whatever the reality is, I’m not sure that it contains as much free choice as I would like to think.
Imagine that I’ve never seen a hot gas stove before (or fire, for that matter), and I have the privilege of reaching my hand out and touching the grate for the first time in my life. When I yank my hand away from the grate, is that a conscious decision I’ve made to move my hand? That time it was probably involuntary, but with this radical new perspective hitting me like a 325°F truck, the next time I see a stove, how much effort, willpower, or personal choice goes into not touching it again? And how much of that new behavior around stoves comes down to simply having new insight (stove + fire = ouch)?
Not a perfect metaphor, I know, but the point here is the perspective. For the longest time, my stance when it came to eating healthier was, “I’m not okay right now, and I need to be okay.” The only problem was, I associated ice cream with becoming okay. Suddenly realizing that I didn’t need to feel okay to actually be okay, the same way I would’ve suddenly realized the stove was hot, any decisions thereafter would be a matter of understanding, not strategy.
In the case of the hot stove, having made first contact and paid the price, I might learn a bit of healthy skepticism of my surroundings. Things aren’t always what they appear to be (the fireless induction stove in my house’s kitchen is particularly insidious). To my caveman brain, uncertainty is a scary idea. After all, what was that sound in the dark? A predator, or a friend? Rather than rest in uncertainty, the imagination steps in, one of evolution’s greatest tools and vices, envisioning every possible answer to that question, the good and the bad, in order to prepare the body for any situation, including any in which it must fight for its life.
Suddenly, in the face of all this adversity (whether it’s in my mind or very much real), I’m seeking comfort again. Enter our friend fire. Even a small flame creates a circle of certainty around the one bearing it, staving off the darkness and its endless frightening possibility. Anything could be out there. Better to know my immediate surroundings, the ground under my feet, than be totally in the dark, vulnerable, naked.
The thing that continues to make ice cream so appealing to me, even after 221 days, is the promise of certainty. Sure, maybe it’s unhealthy, but at least I’ll know where I stand, right? Except, if I really want to drive this metaphor into the ground, Blue Bell ice cream is a lot closer to a firework than a campfire in a dark forest (even the name sounds like a firework brand… Blue Bell…). Maybe it illuminates the forest for a moment when it goes off, but in the flash, I’m blinded, and the dark becomes even more impenetrable, and I scramble to light off another firework.
In the mistrust of myself and my senses, I might set myself on a never-ending cycle, searching for the next light source after this one goes out. It might feel like if I just keep looking, I might find the real fire, the one that won’t go out or blind me but consistently and reliably lights my path, regardless of my circumstances or how long the night lasts. I’ve sought that security in a lot of things over the past five years or so—performance psychology, centering, spiritual paths, meditation, mysticism, the present moment, religion to a lesser degree. But no flame lasts forever, and nighttime always comes again no matter what I try. I will never have total freedom from ice cream cravings. That is not fatalism; that’s just a fact.^[don’t love this]
When I quit ice cream, it’s not like I crossed over from one life into another or became a new person. It isn’t like I figured out a new source of certainty or became enlightened or discovered that something like “awareness” or some concept of “myself” is the ever-present light by which I can always find my way. No, some days just really suck. Six hundred years into 2020, the sugar cravings have spiked more than a few times. The desire is strong to turn ice cream into an authority figure, a parent, who could hold me and make me feel like a child again; to surrender control to something, ensuring that my experience of the world, even if only for a few minutes, would be one of certainty and safety.
What has kept me from indulging in cravings has not been willpower or good decision-making, but only a realization akin to, ah yes indeed, the stove is quite hot to the touch. Going out and trying Jeni’s Ice Cream today would feel like sticking my head in the dirt to escape my fear of the dark; at least I’d know what’s an inch in front of my nose.
But the reality for most of us, or at least the one that I’ve found to be true for myself, is that not knowing what’s in front of my nose is a part of being human. In fact, apart from conventional matters, I can never nail down precisely what is and isn’t there, because what’s there is always shifting and becoming something else. As Robert Saltzman describes it, “Myself never is just what it thinks it is, and never knows just what it thinks it knows.” I can try to forget that (and often, I still do want to forget that) and instead find frozen certainty in chilly aisles at Target, but like ice cream, it never lasts long in the sun.
As I said in the beginning, I can’t say I’ve found happiness in quitting ice cream. But I can say that I’ve found some long-awaited relief. It’s a relief to not be constantly seeking the next circle of light in the forest and actually just rest for a minute, even if I’m lost and the night is getting darker. Maybe my eyes will start to adjust to the low light, and though it will still be cold and I will definitely stumble frequently, I can make my way on my own, at my own pace, and not feel existential panic whenever the light I’ve been carrying starts to fade. If I’m tired, I can give my body what it really craves right now—a break—and lie down no matter how dark or light it is out. I would rather rest in the night than fight against it, and I’d rather be in the day rather than fret over the setting sun.
Like I said before, this isn’t fatalism or resignation to depression, illness, or pain. It is only to ask, in order to face and move through difficult times (which come and go regardless of how spiritually awake or professionally successful I feel), do I really need to imagine a light at the end of the tunnel, whether there is one or not? Is there any reason I can’t just keep walking when I want and resting when I need to without the promise of warmth at the end of the road? At the end of all roads, we die, and no one knows what comes after that, not really. My caveman brain really wants to know for sure, really wants to be certain, as it should; it has a job, which is keeping me healthy and very much alive. But I think humans have matured enough to know that survival, well-being, and good health do not categorically depend on knowing what’s going to happen next. At least, that’s what I’ve so far learned from quitting ice cream. ∎