A Case For Self Denial

Growing up Roman Catholic, I quickly became accustomed to fasting from meat on Fridays, giving up television, and doing random acts of service during the holy season of Lent. Lent lasts 40 days and is meant to cleanse, reorder, and prepare the soul for the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter. A noble cause to be sure, but let’s be honest…as a kid I dreaded Lent! Who in their right mind voluntarily gives up something he or she desires?

The great philosopher Plato once said,

“The first and best victory is to conquer self.”

This is the mentality for fasting, or giving up something for a period of time. When I was in high school I read a fascinating book entitled, The Maker’s Diet. It was indeed a diet book, but the focus was less on losing weight and more on a holistic approach to cleansing one’s body. In it, the physical benefits of fasting one day a week on nothing but water are explained, as this gives the body the chance to reboot and take care of any toxin buildup and digestive failure.

Fasting is also an incredible psychological exercise. Denying yourself something that is pleasurable seems contrary to all instinct and yet it is precisely the way we separate ourselves from animals: free will. Choosing something for a higher good (i.e. discipline) rather than immediate gratification is not only virtuous, but also encouraging. It often exposes one’s habitual pulls and lazy vices.

Take my recent alcohol fast, for example. A few months ago I decided to give up purchasing and drinking alcohol in all forms for an undetermined period of time (it ended up being about 25 days). My reasoning was informed by several observations. First, I realized that I had been spending a significant amount of my “self” allotment of my budget on cocktails at social gatherings and beers for the “hang-in” nights. All my fun money, however slight, was going to responsible drinking instead of buying new books, new clothes, taking mountain drives, buying a new candle, or taking classes. I realized that while I had been feeding my liver I had been neglecting my other hobbies, and it was time to give them some wiggle room.

This fasting is a simple example of self-denial, and doesn’t always have to be food/drink related. Freedom is classically defined as the “ability to pursue the good.” If you find yourself overly attached to spending, speaking, texting…take a break, my friend! Your guilty pleasure will still be there when you return, stronger and clearer, or maybe even no longer important.