Out in the cool of the evenings in Kharagpur of the Sixties, one would meet elderly couples quietly strolling, out for their evening constitutionals. Bengalis eat dinner late, but they are a highly civilized people and wouldn’t think of pigging out and dropping right into bed. Walking both before and after meals promotes healthy metabolic activity. A walk before dinner actually decreases both the appetite and the sugar and fats in the blood after one has eaten; a gentle stroll after dinner (best to wait 45 minutes) is good for both the metabolism and the heart. Sometimes the couples looked like a companionable pair; as often as not, though, the old gentleman would be walking a few paces ahead of his wife, intent on carrying out his accustomed daily routine. She would be following on behind, comfortably enough, though perhaps not involved in the movements of her intestines as much as in her thoughts about what household chores had to be completed before bedtime. (Mansi Bhatia has described these couples in her blog post, In step or not?) But despite the patriarchal gender dynamics, these householders were sane, calm, and regular in their habits.
My father, who gave up smoking in his forties, told me of an old gentleman he knew when he was young. He used to smoke his tobacco in a hookah, and restrict himself to two deep puffs in the morning. Just two, no more. “But he thoroughly enjoyed those two puffs,” my father explained to me. Without moralizing he was cautioning me against excess, whether it was excess of indulgence or excess of self-denial. (See TMA 145, Just a Little is Enough.) How different from the bingeing that seems to be the norm, especially among the youth, no matter what their chosen intoxicant.
Is excess an essential property of youth, something that naturally tends toward moderation with age? When I think back to my own youth, I’m not sure. I remember, as a teenager in Brookline, having a passionate argument with my father’s friend Richard, who used to come over for long, long evenings on the weekends with his wife Cynthia, and discuss art and literature; Buddhism, behaviorism, and Martin Buber; and politics, philosophy, and urban planning with my parents over late dinners and endless drinks and snacks. Their children came over in their pj’s and slept, Mum and Cynthia prepared and served feasts, joined in the discussion as long as they could keep their eyes open, and then snoozed on the sofa while Dad and Richard went at it until the wee hours of the morning. (When Richard published his book, Dialogues Concerning the Foundation of Ethics, Cynthia’s painting for the cover was a portrait of my father, in a tribute to the many conversations that had helped to develop his ideas.)
I had no patience with their endless and seemingly pointless philosophizing, talking just for the sake of talking, as I saw it then. Everything mattered to me at that age, mattered like life and death. I remember Richard saying to me affectionately—but I thought he was being patronizing—just wait until you’re a little older; you won’t care as deeply about all this as you do now.” Infuriated, I screamed, “I will always care, just as passionately as I do today!”
I must admit that while I still care deeply about the issues I cared about as a teenager, I do suffer from a numbing battle fatigue these days, and from a certain sense that I’ve seen it all before. The funny thing is that Richard has become, if anything, even more passionate than he was more than 40 years ago. The subject that he is so passionate about now is he Golden Rule: Love others as you love yourself.
Those middle-aged couples on their evening strolls—for they weren’t old, they just seemed old to me as a girl of ten—seemed to have discovered the Golden Mean, the desirable middle between two extremes. Older now than those couples were then, I still seek in vain the regularity I saw in them. How to maintain healthy habits without allowing them to rigidify into routine? How to achieve true freedom by living in harmony with dharma, the law that upholds the universe, to live by the golden rules without being entirely ruled by them?
Balance and Harmony would seem to be the key: keeping alert but also remaining calm. Those regular evening walks will be far more beneficial than erratic binges of exertion followed by collapse. There is no need to give up deep, passionate caring about the things that really matter. Hold on to them but maintain perspective, and know when to let go.