Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

What is the proper ratio of peanut butter to jelly on the classic “peanut butter and jelly” sandwich?

The Nutty Professor

Dear Nutty Professor,

I was immediately intrigued by your deceptively simple inquiry because it suggests two kinds of answers: one literal and one metaphorical. Since you are also of a professorial nature, I shall endeavor to explore both sides of the issue with appropriate scholarly fervor.

When considering the actual material construction of a peanut butter and jelly comestible, a personal friend and PB&J expert (she ate this particular delicacy every school day for more than a decade!) suggests two-thirds P. to a one-third the amount of J. I tend to spread the peanut butter on one slide and jelly on the other. Some experts recommend splitting the peanut-butter (first) and jelly (second) on top both slices of bread and then joining them together, because the peanut butter will act as a natural sealant.

However, I am most interested, my dear Nutty, in the metaphysical implications of your question. The ancient sages continually returned to questions concerning, as you say, “proper ratios.” Aristotle recommended the seeker of virtue find a golden middle way between excess and deficiency. He might advise that you should not be too stingy in your application of jelly, but neither be so generous that it spills out in slimy superfluidity.

The Buddha taught of a Middle Way—the path between self-indulgence and deprivation. An adherence to this perfect balance was a means to achieve liberation from attachment and then gain Enlightenment. Perhaps your quest for balance reflects an unbridled desire for control.

But some control is necessary. A writer of the Old Testament described the man without self-control as a “city broken into and left without walls.” The thirteenth-century Muslim mystic and poet Rumi likewise characterized life as a journey toward moderation, or as he eloquently put it, “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.”

Self-control, detachment, and harmony keep human beings healthy and safe. All well and good, But what does a proper ratio look like? How can we identify correct proportions in order to reproduce them? Many have tried. The Parthenon has been praised as a paragon of rational design because it was said to follow the golden ratio as espoused by Euclid. Leonardo da Vinci inscribed his Vitruvian man into both a circle and square in order to illustrate the perfectly proportional human. The poets have promised us that a balance of truth and beauty is so satisfying we will need nothing more. Maybe the truthful crunch of an expertly smeared chunky peanut butter combined with the gossamer beauty of jelly sparking in the kitchen lights will one day strike you as so utterly complete and pleasing, you will just know a golden balance has been achieved.

And yet, my dear Nutty, I’m not convinced that this long meditation will actually aid your quest for the perfectly proportional PB&J. One need only look at the world to realize that humankind has failed to find a satisfying sense of balance. We feel this perhaps most keenly in small, quotidian frustrations: the frenzy of overwork, the tedium of underemployment, the oppression of solitude, and the anxiety of over-stimulation. I, for one, often feel that my life lacks equilibrium.

Yet, despite the imbalance that weighs down our human existence, these three things may give you comfort.

1)   As I hope I have illustrated, you are not alone with your questions about proper ratios.

2)   Despite all this talk of golden ratios and middle ways, I do believe there is flexible, nay, idiosyncratic way to approach your sandwich proportions! There is a time and season for everything. Some days might call for an extra dab of peanut butter and others for rivers of jelly. Only you can determine that in the fleeting moment.

3)   Finally, as you and I muddle on our journeys—our fingers gummed up with the sweet gunk of everyday life—there is a sufficient, even perfect measure of grace for us both, grace to cover our mistakes, failures, miscalculations, deficiencies, and excesses.

J.R. LaP

P.S. You might find this recent article in the Atlantic helpful for answering your question, even if it is tangentially related.

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