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 there’s no real problem with that. But in a certain set of circumstances, for a certain kind of person, it can hard to change tack. Those rules become a habit—or, at least, part of a cycle of punishment and reward that is certainly unhealthy in a mental sense, and often also in a physical one, too.
Eating and not eating. Vice and virtue. Here’s another binary: bad and good. Most of us have a clear notion of which foods are “bad,” even if we disagree on some of the finer taxonomic points (I once witnessed an hour-long office debate about whether coconuts qualified). Crisps are bad. Sugar is bad. Potatoes are bad. The sorts of foods we give up for Lent, in other words, are all bad: a notion which underscores the virtue of fasting.
But, unless it is actively poisonous, there’s no such thing as a “bad” food. The distance between “You shouldn’t eat too much of this on a regular basis” and “This food is bad” may seem tiny. But to someone who’s anxious about their diet, their weight, their social standing, it matters so, so much.
So, before you restrict your diet in any way, big or small, ask yourself why. Maybe it is a harmless religious observance, or an attempt to save money. Maybe it is a genuine acknowledgement that you eat a certain food way too often. In which case, great.
But if, deep down, fasting feels like a test of your self-discipline, a punishment for too much pleasure, or a way to impose order on your life that is about more than food, stop. If the act of fasting itself feels like a virtue, stop. Because however real the supposed health benefits of fasting may be, that feeling isn’t healthy—and now is the time to give it up.