Hypergraffiti

Hypergraphia is a condition that causes people to transcribe their thoughts uncontrollably. I don't suffer from it in the clinical sense, but I may be borderline. My blog is the cyber-wall where I spray paint my thoughts for all to see. By the way, if you came here directly through blogger --if your page has no yellow frames and no pretty pic of me in the top left corner -- you may want to visit my main site at www.hypergraffiti.com, where you can read this blog and much much more.

Name:

I'm Trudy Morgan-Cole, a writer from St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. My books include "The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson," "Esther: A Story of Courage," and "Deborah and Barak." I'm also a married mom of two, a teacher in an adult-ed program, and a Christian of the Seventh-day Adventist kind. I blog about writing, reading, parenting, teaching, spirituality, and shiny things that catch my eye.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Self Denial


We are officially two weeks into Lent. So far I have kept up my Lenten disciplines; giving up chocolate (except for Sabbath, when I believe you shouldn't fast, but that's another story) and giving up fiction in favour of reading through my Lenten non-fiction book list (surf over to my book blog and check out the latest offerings).
Apart from the theological question of why someone who's not Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox should observe Lent, I sometimes field questions from people who wonder about the value of self-denial itself. "Isn't it like trying to earn your salvation?" I've heard people ask. Or, "What's the point of denying ourselves the good things God gave us to enjoy?"
On Monday I was at Tim Horton's for the first time since Lent began. I was relieved to note the tray of chocolate danish -- my favourite guilty pleasure -- was empty. Otherwise, I might have been seriously tempted.
Also on Monday, Christopher set himself the challenge of staying away from computer games all day. He likes to play on a site called "Addicting Games," and his questions about the site name led to some interesting conversations about addiction. He decided to quit computer games for the day to prove he wasn't addicted. He asked me if I could give up the computer for a day, and I agreed to try it yesterday. I made it through most of the day but cracked in the evening. I excused myself to Chris by saying I'd stayed off it till his bedtime, which was just as long as he'd done!
All this has got me thinking about the value of self-denial, why I believe it's intrinsically valuable to sometimes say "No" to the things we want. It should be pointed out here that I don't use Lent to give up things I think are bad for me anyway, although I know some people do that and it works for them. My practice is about giving up things I think are good but unnecessary -- those little luxuries and indulgences, like chocolate or fiction or the internet, that make life easier and more pleasant. Things I believe are good in themselves but also things that might get out of hand, might become too central, if not used wisely. Why take a self-imposed break from life's little luxuries?
I've come up with a list of reasons why people might deny themselves simple pleasures:
1. To earn brownie points with God. This kind of thinking is pretty low on the level of moral reasoning, and I don't know many adults, no matter what their theology, who consciously think this way. "If I give up chocolate for Lent, God will let me into heaven," or "If I keep the Sabbath and refrain from eating meat, I'll be a good Adventist and get into heaven." Put like that it looks silly, but maybe vestiges of that kind of thinking linger. Rituals of self-denial, like fasting or Lenten disciplines, are probably a bad idea for people who were raised with a very guilt-oriented, works-based view of religion, because it might be easier for them to slip into this kind of thinking.
2. To look good. Jesus, as you'll remember, told us not to make a big deal of the fact that we were fasting or giving to the poor (which makes blogging about Lent a bit inappropriate, I guess), yet it's hard to resist that temptation to say, "Look how good, pious and self-disciplined I am.
3. To prove that I can. The first time I ever tried giving up something for Lent, many years ago before I had any particular theology connected with it, it was definitely to prove a point to myself. It was chocolate then too, but there was no spiritual goal in sight: I just wanted to know if I could go without it for six weeks, and also (I was 23 at the time) if my skin would clear up, if I did. (I could, and it didn't). I am the sort of person for whom there is a certain pleasure in saying, "Lord, give me strength to meet this self-imposed and totally unnecessary challenge" (kudos to Ashleigh Brilliant for that famous line). So I do have to resist the temptation to take pride in my ability to "give things up."
4. To bring balance to the Force. OK, not to the Force -- I got carried away. But to bring balance to my use of these "simple pleasures." I think this is a good reason. Like Christopher with computer games or me with chocolate, we all have good things that we are tempted to overuse, and giving them up for awhile may help us to gain mastery over them so we can use them wisely rather than unwisely.
5. To practice saying "No." There will be times -- and this applies to every moral, ethical
person, not just Christians -- when doing the right thing will require saying "No" to my own desires and impulses. To do what's right for others, for the world, for the environment, means that I can't always get what I want in this particular moment. Gandhi allegedly said that no-one could practice non-violence if he or she hadn't practiced fasting. Learning to control my own desires, saying No to myself on occcasion, builds spiritual muscle, and reminds me that I don't always have to gratify my every desire.

6. To be mindful.
I've blogged a little on Compulsive Overreader about reading a book on Buddhism and reflecting on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, which I think is useful for Christians too. Giving up something as simple as chocolate means I have to stop and think about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, which anchors me in the present moment and makes me live more purposefully, more mindfully.
7. To increase dependence on God. I cannot tell you how much I miss the tiny comfort of a hot chocolate on a cold evening, or the pleasure of relaxing with a good novel (I love reading my non-fiction books too, but it is a different kind of pleasure; not the falling-into-a-feather-bed enjoyment of immersing myself in good fiction). When I am tired, or stressed, or just cranky, these are the pleasures I reach for. To say, "No, I can't have this right now" forces me to look for some other comfort, some other source of strength -- which I hope, at least some of the time, will make me more consciously aware of God as the root of all my strength and comfort.
So there you have it. Seven reasons for giving things up. The first three I consider (for me) to be poor reasons, ones I try to avoid; the last four are the reasons that lead me to forego the pleasure of a Tim's chocolate danish on a bitter, bleak winter day.
But only for four more weeks. Just four weeks. I can make it ... I think.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Virginia said...

I gave up sugar for Lent, with the Sabbath exemption (I think that in reality, there is a Sunday exemption anyway, but socially Saturday works better for me).

You've got a good list there.

And you can make it.

8:38 PM  
Blogger bubandpie said...

I might be remembering this incorrectly, but I believe that in Girl Meets God Lauren Winner talks about giving up ALL books for Lent. She was challenged to do it by a pastor and felt the same sense of trepidation I would feel if faced with a similar task. What would my life be like if there were no reading in it?

10:45 PM  
Blogger Melessa said...

I gave up chocolate for Lent too.

11:00 PM  
Blogger TrudyJ said...

melessa and virginia, good luck with your Lenten disciplines!

bubandpie, you are remembering correctly. Lauren Winner writes in Girl Meets God -- and I think in Mudhouse Sabbath as well -- about her priest challenging her to give up reading altogether for Lent. She didn't make it through Lent. I tried it last year and I didn't make it either ... not an edifying experience!

10:07 PM  

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