The lessons we learned as children do not always serve us well as we grow older. I have written before about the fine suit of armor I hammered out as a boy, to protect my vulnerable self from hurt. I learned it was dangerous, among other boys at school, to show anything like fear, or pain, or sadness. Even joy. It took me more than fifty years even to learn that I was tottering through life hampered by this ungainly outer wear; and I still hear it clanking and creaking about me to this day.
Some of those lessons came in handy little packages, made pithy so that they would be easy for a child’s mind to latch onto and remember. “Little children should be seen and not heard,” was one of those I personally learned. (I find myself keeping a purposefully low profile even now, in my, um, advanced years!) I woke in the middle of last night with another such adage in the forefront of my mind: “Waste not, want not.” It means, I think, not “don’t waste, don’t want,” but rather “if you don’t waste, you won’t end up in need.”
I can’t stand to waste, nor to witness waste around me. In some ways, of course, that’s a laudable attitude, but it’s one that causes me persistent, if mostly low-key suffering in this land of waste. Everything, these days, is disposable—and by design—from the things we use to shave to coffee cups and cutlery. Even cars, these days, and refrigerators, seem designed with an expiry date. Our trash cans overflow each week with the stuff we throw away. Our waste sites fill once beautiful canyons or create mountains where there was nothing but flat land before.
For me personally, it’s more than an intellectual distress. Thanks to the persistence of that childhood message, it goes to the root of my being. So much so that I find it impossible to throw anything away. The shelves in our garage are lined with boxes filled with aging files of documents that no one will ever read again, my study cluttered with useless books and papers. Consider even my sock drawer, crammed with pairs of socks—and even singles—that I no longer use but can’t bring myself to throw away. My shelves of t-shirts. Closets bursting with shirts and jackets I am no longer slim enough to wear, and never will again…
Speaking of which—and probably what brought this adage uncomfortably to mind in the middle of the night—I particularly can’t bear to waste food. A good principle, yes. It’s deeply distressing to see such mountains of food go to waste in this country while hunger and famine deprive so many of our fellow human beings of their very lives. But my obsession takes a more intimate, personal toll. I can’t bear to leave even a single scrap of food on my plate at the end of the meal. By the same token, I can’t let anything in the refrigerator go to waste. I have to eat it all. A bottle of wine, once opened? Needs to be drunk to the last drop.
The dire result, at my age, is the spreading waist line, the unneeded weight I carry around with me each day, the fatigue that results from eating more than I actually need to eat at each meal. It’s the feeling of bloat when I wake in the middle of the night, in the morning when I wake. I exercise reasonably well, I eat well, too. It’s just that I eat too much, and I eat too much, in part, because I have this dread fear of waste.
Waste not, want not. I learned it as a child, in wartime Europe, when the waste of food was truly an unthinkable, almost treasonous act. It’s a lesson so deeply ingrained that it governs my behavior mindlessly. And as with all such false, unhelpful lessons, the only weapon that’s known to be successful in combating it is consciousness. Which is hard work. It requires the kind of vigilance I prefer to sacrifice to the simple pleasure of, well, eating. And drinking. Wine. I love it. As I love, say, cheese, and bread… I just must remind myself when consuming the things I love that I don’t need so much of them. Watch the waist, and not the waste.