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Make mine a mocker...

In the series finale of the sort-of-endearing, sort-of-dreadful "Don't Trust the B**** in Apartment 23", the extreme New York party lifestyle finally catches up with once sweet-and-innocent country girl June and she winds up in A&E having her stomach pumped. The rest of the episode is about the damage this threatens to do to her relationships and social life as she struggles to find non-drinking-related ways of spending time with wild socialite Chloe (somewhat of a Cruella de Vil-meets-Holly Golightly type character) and her celebrity best friend James Van Der Beek [1] for the six months that she is ordered to rest her liver. It is at once ridiculous and sad that alcohol should play a sufficiently central role in friendship and fun for this to be an easy set-up for a sitcom plot.

Having grown up in Britain -- binge-drinking capital of the world and primary exporter of drunken tourists (stags and hens and their entourages in particular) -- I am well-used to seeing drink taken for granted as a (/the?) vital ingredient of any social occasion. I do not -- though I know, and respect, that some Christians do -- think that alcohol itself is wrong or forbidden. I like a nice glass of wine, or even two. (Three, and apparently I start to believe I can rap. Fortunately, Mr. W is sole witness to this, and that's how I intend to keep it -- which is to say, I have been reminded of my limits).

So, I count myself an intentionally moderate drinker. So much so that I've never paid much attention to the 'healthy drinking guidelines', as I never considered myself in much danger of exceeding them. According to (and please don't take my word for it as 'medical advice' falls somewhere pretty near the top of my very long 'list of things I am completely unqualified to discuss') these are:
  • Men: no more than 21 units per week, no more than 4 in any one day, at least 2 alcohol-free days a week.
  • Women: no more than 14 units per week, no more than 3 in any one day, at least 2 alcohol-free days a week.
For me, then, that means two (properly) small (125ml) glasses of red wine, or one standard large pub portion, and I can 'get away' with that about 4 days a week. Hmm...time perhaps to be honest with myself and accept that that, thanks to an improved social life and (more worryingly) an increasingly 'wine-centric' attitude to relaxation I am now pushing these limits by enough margin with enough frequency to probably need to introduce a bit more of that 'intentionality' I boast of.

This tendency to 'exempt' oneself is interesting; I don't think it's just me. One gets the sense (in this country, especially) that even most of the politicians and health-care professionals preaching (with all sincerity) sensible limits somehow fail to apply it to their half a bottle of wine in front of the telly, or however-many-beers-you-get-through in 90 minutes of football, or the dinner party with G&T on arrival, the perfect-selection-to-match-every-course and the cognac to follow.

Over-indulgence is no new problem, nor, believe it or not, is it unique to this Sceptred Isle. Here's a quote from a c.375 BC play by Eubulus, in which the god of wine Dionysis lays down some recommendations at the start of a drinking party ('symposium' [2]):
"Three kraters, (cups) do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first, the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer but belongs to hubris, the fifth to uproar, the sixth to prancing about, the seventh to black eyes, the eighth brings the police, the ninth belongs to vomiting, and the tenth to insanity and the hurling of furniture."
And Proverbs, as ever combining poetic richness with straightforward wisdom, contains this wonderfully descriptive warning:
Do not look at wine when it is red,
    when it sparkles in the cup
    and goes down smoothly.
In the end it bites like a serpent
    and stings like an adder.
Your eyes will see strange things,
    and your heart utter perverse things.
You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea,
    like one who lies on the top of a mast.
“They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt;
    they beat me, but I did not feel it.
When shall I awake?
    I must have another drink.” (Proverbs 23:31-35) 
All things considered, there are certainly grounds for scepticism when it comes to recreational drunkenness [3]. Is it actually as fun as popular opinion holds? Would anybody choose, a priori, vomiting and the hurling of furniture as the ideal finale to an evening's entertainment? (I am reminded of the 'know your limits' campaign [video] of a few years back, which took a similar line: "You wouldn't start a night like this, so why end it that way?"). Or even, somewhere before that stage, can it really be better to be in a disordered state of thinking than to be in an ordered state? I have had experience enough of mental disorder which I didn't choose for myself without submitting willingly given other options. And, since the sensations and events experienced under such conditions are often but faintly remembered, it seems strange that so few questions are raised about the desirability of repeating them.

Oops, this is all sounding horrendously preachy and disapproving, which wasn't my intention. Though I would like to challenge the uncheckedness of the mainstream approach to social drinking. Apart from anything else, is it not pretty weird, as pastimes and hobbies go? To any other end, most people would take quite a lot of persuading to surrender their mental faculties, compromise their physical safety, compress their leisure time (thanks to that weird kind of accelerated tempo produced by disorientation and forgetfulness), sacrifice the productivity and quality of life of an entire day (i.e. the one 'after the night before') -- and yet when it comes to drink people are literally queuing to pay for the privilege. Some, no doubt, really do evaluate the experience as benefit enough to outweigh such costs (although the list above is exemplary, not exhaustive). But how many do it just because everyone else is, and never stop to question whether they like it or think it fair return for the price? A little bit of courage and creativity could be all it takes to open up a world of possibilities -- 'fun' which stands up to scrutiny, relationships which go beyond the superficial, liberation from the wild-to-weary vacillations of 'living for the weekend'.

Of all the Bible has to say about drink [4], one of the most powerful messages that comes across to me is simply that there is so much more on offer. The exhortation to moderation is not a kill-joy "don't do this or else" kind of instruction. Take Paul's letter to the Ephesians in which he contrasts drunkenness with the richness and vibrant 'realness' of a Spirit-filled life in relationship with God. I know which one makes sense to me.
"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:15-21)

[1] There's an endearing recklessness to playing a fictionalised version of oneself -- I quickly warmed to him in spite of my cringing recollections of the endlessly cloying Dawson's Creek. His performance, however, is nothing on Matt LeBlanc's hilarious portrayal of himself in the genuinely brilliant Episodes, which has also just finished.

[2] Yes, that's right, a word which now means 'academic conference' once meant 'drinking party'. Hmm. Was going to make a comment about the mutation of language but on reflection...

[3] There are other types of drunkenness than recreational -- dependency, self-medication, despair, and who knows what overlaps -- sad and complex, and beyond what I feel OK talking about here.

[4] Here's my attempt to summarise a brief selection, but don't take my word for it -- check out the references (and others, and the contexts, and the Bible as a whole) and decide for yourself what it's saying:
  • In spite of the potential for abuse, wine is, to begin with, a gift from God (Psalm 104:14-15). As such, it can be enjoyed with integrity:
    • Jesus is reported as having drunk wine (Matthew 26:29)
    • ... and, famously, as having turned water into wine so that wedding celebrations could continue (John 2:1-11)
    • And Paul recommends that Timothy 'take a little wine for his stomach' (1 Timothy 5:23) -- in those days it was less likely to be contaminated than the drinking water available. 
  • However, the Bible is uncompromising in calling out the dangers and pitfalls: