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Spiritual Practice of the Month: Temperance

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- One hundred years ago the word ‘temperance’ got a bad rap. Temperance societies, whose original intent was to promote human flourishing, became identified with only one part of their message: the prohibition of alcohol.

Over time prohibition became the law of the land and, after a few years, was abandoned. From then on, when most folks thought of ‘temperance,’ it was not human flourishing which came to mind, but busybodies trying to foist their habits on others.

However, temperance never went away. Temperance is merely the practice of aligning your natural emotions and desires with your principles. We know it by other names; emotional intelligence, self-control and other similar ideas all find their roots in the practice of temperance.


“Temperance is the education and training of emotional responses so that one’s sensual urges are in line with one’s moral principles and framework,” Dr. Daniel Westberg, Nashotah House Theological Seminary professor of ethics and moral theology, wrote.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, described this practice when he wrote, “We who lived in [Nazi] concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread . . . they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

Those men and women who responded to the horrors of the Holocaust with love for their fellow prisoners were practicing temperance. Instead of allowing their natural desire for food to override their principle of love, they chose to love.

Temperance gives the ultimate freedom - the freedom to choose our response to any given situation.

To implement this practice in our lives, we need to mind the gap between stimulus and response. The simple stimulus-response principle states that environmental stimuli trigger responses in creatures. We experience an environmental stimulus and then a response.

In nature, animals respond without reflection to the stimuli surrounding them. There is little or no gap between stimulus and response. We are different; we have the ability to mind the gap.

We mind the gap between stimulus and response by pausing, considering both the stimulus and our natural response, then asking ourselves, “How am I responding? Is my response fitting and helpful? What do I want out of this moment? How can I best respond to achieve that outcome?”

By considering these questions, we train ourselves to expand the gap between our circumstances and our responses. This, as Frankl wrote, enables us to “choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances.”