Lent started last Wednesday. Which means that for Christians a time of self-deprivation and religious reflection has barely begun. Pretty much every religion has a tradition of enforcing humility, fasting and the giving up of your leisures, to surrender your earthly possessions, your greed and your desire where they are affecting your spiritual growth.
But the purpose of such tradition can be lost on most of us. We’re pampered, coddled souls in a world that offers us nearly everything we demand. Not only that, but we’re sheltered from the sufferings of others and we hide from things that our ancestors and relatives in distant lands witness daily. We haven’t really known scarcity. We haven’t really known poverty. We haven’t really known death, disaster, loneliness. Even when you’ve gone a day without food, you’re moments away from a bite, a bit of kindness away from sustenance. The idea of going a week without food and with none anywhere in sight is gone. We don’t know true hunger or true deprivation. We just know mild forms of suffering, catch glimpses of it through a screen or over a sanitary barrier.
And as such we desperately need sacrifice. We can’t actually experience the mental state of scarcity this way. After all, you can easily just go and buy a chocolate bar during Lent or get yourself a flashy red car as a Buddhist. Nothing stops you. But at least it will help us reflect on how much we have and how little we need.
Because we really are overwhelmed. We’re obese, abusing medications, developing alcoholism and drug addiction, not managing to sustain relationships, giving children vaccines for STDs, shopping our way into debt, partying all night with our 500 facebook “friends” and still somehow bored, lonely and sad. But it isn’t, as some people assume, despite the abundance and freedom we have. It’s because of it. There is too much of everything, it comes too easily and it’s killing us. Like many animals, humans are meant to jump at every chance to eat, rest, have fun, reproduce and socialize. But we’re surrounded by these chances and we’re indulging them too much. These necessary acts we used to perform to keep us alive have become abundant indulgences that make us ill.
Not only have they become indulgences. Because we have almost no upper limit for these acts, they have also become booming industries, with vast numbers of brands and products competing for our attention and wealth. So we’re not just surrounded by food, drugs, media, shops, sex and events. We’re also surrounded by constant reminders of them, a constant pressure to consume.
So eventually, in our own little way, we cave in. We eat too much, take drugs (in one form or another), enjoy casual sexual stimulation, overspend and generally obey the media around us, wondering why we’re still not happy.
And we’re not happy because too much is never enough. I used to be obese. Between that and the preceding eating disorder, I have actually lost my appetite signals, have an overly flexible stomach and can eat almost continuously. When I was obese, however much I ate wasn’t ever enough. I needed more and, even as I was getting fatter, congratulated myself on my restraint. Even after losing weight, that feeling of permanent hunger was so hard to fight that I would indulge, guiltily nibbling at unhealthy foods to kill the cravings. But then I tried fasting. It was as part of a Paleo style diet and I figured that if my ancestors managed to fast for a day once in a while, so could I. The first twelve hours were tough. I was sure that the next day I would be famished. But I wasn’t. The following day I ate moderately and cleanly, not craving junk foods and not wanting massive portions. I felt genuinely satisfied on what would have previously been seen as “too little”. And, for the first time in years, I felt full. Too much was never enough, but sacrifice was plenty.
Likewise for everything. Living on a lower income than you actually have is more rewarding and enjoyable than keeping up with the Joneses. Drinking only on special events improves the taste and enjoyment of the alcohol and helps you drink less, sometimes you’ll even turn down a drink even when you’re “allowed” one. Working your way through lethargy leaves you feeling more rewarded and at ease by nightfall than sleeping or resting until noon does. Spending time in your own company leads you to better appreciate whose company is good and whose is bad. Too much is not enough, sacrifice is plenty.
So give up something, anything, everything. Maybe for Lent, maybe for a day, maybe for a year or forever. Reflect on the abundance around you, on the pleasure of indulging in a controlled manner, on the joy of prohibition and the freedom of sacrifice. Your body, mind and soul will thank you.
TTFN and Happy Hunting!