A few days ago, I heard a talk show host discussing the recent deluge of single-family home foreclosures.
He seemed to agree with everyone else that the mortgage crisis was caused by financial institutions that gave out too many mortgages to too many unqualified applicants. Also, that they did so stupidly and/or greedily (you pick) at unrealistic interest rates to individuals who were probably nice to orphaned animals, but who didn’t have enough money to buy a cold drink on credit from a grubby faced kid operating a lemonade stand.
The talk show host went further than the rest of the pundits, though. He insisted that none of the blame should fall on those who had borrowed money to buy houses, which they could not afford and were about to lose. It was not their fault that they were drowning in debt. It was the fault of the evil moneylenders.
He continued along these lines for a few minutes. Then he abruptly changed subjects and said something that took my breath away. All banks, he demanded, should be banned from issuing credit cards. Why? Because credit allows us to buy things that we cannot afford, and people should not be subjected to temptation.
Good grief, I thought. Life without ... temptation.
When I hear the word temptation, one thing pops into my head. I was young and had just moved from the Midwest to New York for my first full time job. To get to work, I had to walk past a bakery with prettily arranged pastries, pies, and cakes in the display window. The sight of such gastronomic delights did not attract me in the least. But the smells! To this day, if I close my eyes, I can still smell the peanut butter cookies.
My, oh my, oh my, oh. My mouth watered. My taste buds threw up little white flags. I surrendered.
I was 18 and away from home for the first time. I didn’t know much about managing money, so I kept a little notebook in my purse and wrote down every single expense: Eggs. Oatmeal. Shampoo. Legal pad. Paperback novel. I certainly could not afford a used car, new clothes, or a telephone (I made all my calls from a phone booth on the corner). But I could easily afford half a dozen cookies.
If they had no nutritional value, so what? I could eat a carrot for dinner. If I put on a pound in the process, who cared? I would walk it off the next day. I was slim. Healthy. Energetic. Money was scarce, but life was good. Peanut butter cookies were, to me, temptation, and temptation was worth every single empty calorie.
That I succumbed to it did not hurt people starving in Ethiopia. It did not topple empires. It did not bankrupt a nation, hobble a horse, or cripple a child. And it certainly did not interfere with my dreams. It felt good.
It would not, however, have felt good to a man suffering from diabetes. For him, surrendering to the enticement of a peanut butter cookie could trigger heart disease, blindness, kidney damage, stomach problems, and heavens knows what else.
If he had eaten one cookie, or three cookies, or ten cookies, according to the blame-game philosophy of the talk show host, it would not have been the diabetic’s fault that he landed up in a hospital ... or dead. No indeed. It would have been the fault of the bakery. The bakery, you see, had provided temptation. Obviously, its doors should have been hermetically sealed so that no injudicious aromas could escape to lure a helpless invalid (with no free will, no judgment, and no self-control) to his death.
Similarly, department store windows should be covered with heavy draperies so that young secretaries won’t be tempted to buy pretty clothes; motorcycle shops should be forbidden from displaying Road Kings lest they attract the eyes of mid-life-crisis prone males; and brides should be prohibited from reading magazines advertising weddings gowns that they might, or might not, be able to afford.
Advertising – whether it consists of flowers attractively arranged in a florist’s window or super bowl ads on television – is just a formalized way of transforming a product or a service into ... temptation.
A gorgeous model leans seductively against the hood of a Mercedes-Benz SLK 280 roadster. The message: Buy the car and get the woman.
A rugged rancher tosses aside his Stetson and strides toward a beauty who is dabbing Clive Christian No. 1 ($215,000 a bottle) behind a delicate ear. The message: Buy the perfume and get the cowboy.
A married couple sits on the porch of a pretty house drinking ice tea and watching their children frolic beside a “FOR SALE” sign on a lush green lawn. The message: Buy the house and live happily ever after.
That’s what temptation is all about, isn’t it? Sexy cars. Expensive perfumes. Flat screen TVs. A college education. A more efficient furnace. A new washing machine. A low interest loan on a dream house.
We scrimp. We save. We work three jobs. We count our pennies. We add them up and wait until we can afford to buy it, whatever “it” is. Or, at least, that is what some of us do. Others buy what they want when they want it, whether they can afford to or not. And when they lose it, they blame the bank. They blame the credit card company. They blame fate. They blame temptation.
Silly, isn’t it? When we have the choice to be responsible or not ...
To blame the peanut butter cookie.
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit: shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben