Observing Lent is one thing. But in a culture that gives us more and more opportunities to deny ourselves things for the sake of denial, we should think carefully before introducing more rulesby Samuel Pollen / February 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
The question is all but unavoidable: what are you giving up?
Is it chocolate? Crisps? Pizza? Ice cream? If you’re short of ideas, newspapers will happily supply them. This Lent, you can give up coffee! Or beef! Or beer! You can give up anything you want—but you have to give up something.
Before addressing the what, though, there’s another question you should ask yourself: why?
If you’re religious, the answer is easy. Christians have been giving things up for Lent for two thousand years. It’s tradition. It’s an act of observance. And while it’s not for me, I have no problem with that concept.
Fasting, though, has grown beyond its religious roots. Every year, thousands of people who are not religious choose to give up something or other for Lent. And that’s not all. Now, we have Dry January. We have the 5:2 diet. We have, improbably, the ‘Warrior Diet’, whose adherents fast for up to 20 hours every day, just like our hunter-gatherer ancestors apparently did. (The loincloth is optional.)
In an age of abundance, fasting has gone mainstream. We love to go without. We insist, on thin evidence, that all this fasting is good for our immune systems, our thinking, our youthful good looks. And we don’t really consider the downside.
Fasting is binary. Instead of saying, “I will eat less of this thing,” we say, “I will not eat it at all.” It’s presented as an act of self-discipline—but really, it’s the opposite. We go without because we don’t trust ourselves to go with less, and we’re not happy, on some level, with the way things are. We set rules, rules we know are arbitrary, so that we’ll feel guilty if we break them.
As the Guardian reported yesterday, we are witnessing a boom in eating disorders (which, it’s always worth remembering, are among the deadliest of diseases). The etiology of an eating disorder is complex, but in my experience, they begin with the rules you place around food—what you can eat, and where, and when.
These rules start out harmless enough. But stack them up, add them all together, and they are insidious. Live with them for a while, and they seem normal. You can’t imagine living any other way.
Many people, of course, can fast quite happily, and then stop fasting even more happily. And…