Diet for the Mind

When your child has an unhealthful, junk-food diet, you can either follow the encouragements of the mega-food industry (whose sole motivation is to get your money), and continue to feed him crap, since it’s what he craves and has become accustomed to, and after all, at least he’s eating something…

Or you can follow the advice of health professionals and put your foot down and say, “Enough! Crap is crap, and you don’t treat poor health by continuing to provide that which ruined it.” You fight (and it will be a fight) to restore healthful eating habits in your child, and perhaps to help other parents do the same by reducing the prevalence of junk food. A good way to do that last part is by refusing to buy what the purveyors are selling.

Sensible advice, right? The same holds true of the books we read and movies we watch. Perhaps your children crave the lurid, sensationalistic violence that pollutes media today, but that doesn’t make it less unhealthy. People defend this literary junk food by saying, “At least the kids are reading,” but that’s not good enough when it comes to food, so it shouldn’t be good enough when it comes to literature.  And how much is the desire for junk-reading due to it being the kids steady diet? The book-to-film industry insists they are simply providing what the people want, washing their hands like Pontius Pilate, but are they providing what kids want, or have the kids been conditioned to want it, for lack of any alternative that doesn’t seem as undesirable as brussels sprouts? Funny thing is, brussels sprouts are only unpalatable because they are so often poorly prepared. But there are some great recipes out there.

And there are great books; we just have to get kids used to the idea that conflict in a story doesn’t require physical violence, and the “stakes” don’t have to be death. Anyone who has had to eliminate salt or sugar or fat from their diets (I had to do one, and chose to do another) will tell you that at first it’s awful, that everything is bland and flavorless and makes you want that Bag O’ Calories all the much more. But gradually you adapt, and discover the amazing array of flavors that had been buried under all that sodium (I discovered the joy of black pepper when I reduced my salt intake). Subtle, delicate flavors that are far more rewarding. This is true of literature as well. When all you read is maiming and killing, anything else is boring, but eventually you can discover the much more profound strivings of the human heart and the human spirit, important things that were lost in the constant bloodbath.

I’m not all-or-nothing. There’s a place for tasty snax. But it’s a small place. I’ve always maintained that the key to healthy diet lies in two words: balance and moderation. Eat a variety of foods, and don’t eat too much of anything. Don’t deprive yourself of ice cream, but just have a small scoop, rather than the whole pint of Cherry Garcia in one sitting. It lasts longer, and you enjoy it more. Focus on quality: a six-ounce filet mignon is far more enjoyable than a two-pound porterhouse, and you are left feeling better afterwards.

But the interesting thing is, as far as the real junk food, the true crap, you find that, once you have reduced or even eliminated it from your diet, you not only don’t want it any more, you can’t even enjoy it. Once I got off salt, I became quite sensitive to its presence, and now I can barely stand salty foods. And this is as nothing compared to the experience of vegetarians who, having eliminated meat from their diets, find that if they do have meat, it makes them very sick.

I’m not advocating vegetarianism, although it’s a valid choice for people who know what they are doing. But I do think we should reduce or remove from our diets those things that make us sick once we’ve had a chance to step back from them.

And I think this can be true of media-literature as well. I hadn’t read much nor gone to many movies when I began my writer’s journey a few years ago. I’d been a voracious reader in years past, and once went to all the big movies. But I stopped, for reasons I’m unsure of. As a result, upon exposure to the media diet children subsist on today, I was literally sick, and, as you can tell, have perhaps not yet recovered. Had I been immersed as my fellow writers have been, the ones who responded to my horror with, “What’s your problem? I love that book!” I likely would have shared their enjoyment of these things. Yet a meager few actually listened and, taking a step back, looked at this stuff with clearer eyes and said, “Oh my God, this is awful!”

As I said before, some of my favorite movies were quite violent for their time, and I was concerned I was being a hypocrite. But that’s the key: for their time. Recent studies have shown that the ratings have changed. Movies that just ten years ago would have been solid R-rated for violence are now barely even getting PG-13. Dirty Harry, one of my favorite movies, was quite controversial for its extreme violence, and the glorification of it. But it would probably get a PG today. The level of violence in entertainment has increased, and continues to do so. When we feed our cravings, they are not satisfied. Drinking a sugary soda makes you want more sugar. Hyper-violent books and movies make you want more carnage. This has been confirmed in studies.

The junk-food industry isn’t going to stop producing Cheezy-Poofs, and the literature/film industry isn’t going to stop making carnage-filled movies, with higher and higher stakes, including younger and younger victims, and killers. So we have to be the ones to say enough. We must refuse to let them tell us what we want to read and to see. That’s the reason literary agents lie. They say they want something new and different, but they continue to go with vampires and zombies and dystopia and death. Something new and different is a risk, and there’s big money at stake. So they keep giving us more of the same, thinking it’s what we want, when in fact they are part of the conditioning to make us want it.

But if we stop, if we say, “I don’t want that, not matter how tasty you make it look,” then eventually they’ll have to do something else. As I said, there are good books. And there are good movies. Not just saccharine fare either, but rich, provocative stories that get awards, but rarely pack theaters or fly off bookshelves. Demand more of that, and less of the sick ugliness. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be healthier for it.

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