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Eating the broccoli of life ... in moderation

For some of us, it was math; for others, French. Still others found chemistry an impossible task. But what made these subjects so difficult?

Sometimes it was real learning problems or difficulties mastering certain skills. And there was every form of defiance under the sun. But often the problem boiled down to those three familiar words, "I don't wanna."

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In response, our parents would lay down the law: "This is the broccoli of life - you don't have to like it, but it's good for you."

That slightly medicinal stance had fine underpinnings. It fostered the process of learning and encouraged discipline. It countered the urge to abort certain tasks, to become a quitter. In short, a mild boot-camp approach prepared us for the countless hateful tasks that nobody enjoys but need to get done.

It was a primer for growing up - a preview of adult life. Except that some people never learned that broccoli can include hollandaise, and even dessert after the meal. Instead, as adults, they'd stick to the punishing green fiber of their youth, repeating the mantra, "This is good for me."

So it is that legions of overachieving adults still force themselves into daily regimens. Their motto is "No pain, no gain," the unspoken premise being that pain is gain. Forget the excessive Nautilizing, spinning, and stair-climbing that eat up so much valuable time. Even relaxation has its rules.

Consider the prospect of vacation, that purest form of time off. A woman takes several pleasure-reading books on her trip, including the highly acclaimed novel she's already started. She doesn't like the book and wants to put it down. Yet she persists because she thinks she should, hoping it'll get better. It doesn't. And neither does her vacation, now that she's turned the book into a personal mission.

Back from her trip, the woman returns to work resenting the time she wasted. In retrospect, she realizes she could have been reading more enjoyable books, not bulking up on some virtuous, fiber-rich prose.

And so goes the common story - the result of lessons learned too well as a child, of distinctions not made as an adult. Why finish reading a book that keeps your eyes glazing over, or watching a movie that leaves you catnapping?

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In the grown-up world, there's no penalty for using one's time wisely, no punishment for making one's own choice. Indeed, the price of admission is also your ticket to leave. If anything, the result of seeing every book, movie, and game to the bitter end is the frittering away of one's time. No wonder people have so little of it these days.

Most of us have some stash of books-in-waiting, magazines marked with Post-Its - something we've been meaning to get to. That these piles tend to grow rather than shrink often suggests we're busy or overworked.

But sometimes these piles serve as evidence of choices badly made, or not made at all - actions that have little or no element of choice, that are ruled by false notions of "should" and "must." In the end, this leaves many people uttering the refrain, "I don't have time ..." when it comes to options outside their daily regimen. Ironically, this may just be grown-up code for the kid-phrase, "I don't wanna."

Some things never change.

*Joan Silverman is a Boston-based writer. Her work has appeared in many publications including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Dallas Morning News.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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