A Post-Lenten Reflection on the Practice of Self-Denial

“Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’” – Vince Lombardi (football player and coach, 1913-1970)

It has been a little over a week since I ended my 40-day chocolate and “things I like most” fast in observance of the Lenten Season – the first time I have willfully committed to “giving up” something since I entered full fledged adulthood nearly five years ago.

A tradition that I gladly embraced at the start of Ash Wednesday during my childhood years, it became significantly less appealing as the demands of adult life made the idea of giving something up seem nearly unbearable.

In fact, it was only during these last 40 days that I came to a greater realization of just how challenging the practice of self-denial is – and how much truth exists in the age-old saying that life’s most valuable lessons are best learned through times of difficulty, struggle and discomfort.

Indeed, sacrificing pleasure or desire in many ways opposes the very principles that substantiate our existence. From the man in the cave to the hunter-gatherer, our survival has largely demanded that we prioritize our interests and needs, and protect ourselves from any physical or emotional obstructions that threaten our livelihood.

In an increasingly secular world, with a culture that caters to the glorification of instant-gratification and self-aggrandizement (“if it feels good, do it!”), the idea of self-denial can seem particularly inconvenient or disruptive to a lifestyle of “personal fulfillment” that infiltrates every aspect of our existence.

Its practice, however, can be a valuable exercise in seeing ourselves not just as living creatures, but as moral beings.

English historian and novelist James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) once wrote:

“That which especially distinguishes a high order of man from a low order of man, that which constitutes human goodness, human nobleness, is surely not the degree of enlightenment with which men pursue their own advantage; but it is self-forgetfulness; it is self-sacrifice; it is the disregard of personal pleasure, personal indulgence, personal advantage, remote or present, because some other line of conduct is more right.”

Far from being a self-preserving necessity, the value of self-sacrifice lies in its ability to give meaning to our preservation – to recognize the capacity of human beings to attain virtues that can thrust the human race forward in decency and civility.

Unlike the animalistic nature of self-indulgence and pleasure seeking, self-denial and self-discipline are conscious acts that require effort and energy, often leading us down a path of personal transformation and growth.

self-sacrifice quotesYou might even say that what separates us from our fellow living and breathing creatures – and what lies at the heart of acts of self-sacrifice – is the ability to grapple with a simple question: what is the “right” – the moral – thing to do?

Will I pursue my own happiness at the expense of others? Will I selflessly support others’ achievements without receiving acknowledgement myself? Will I be there to listen, help or support a friend or family in need when it is inconvenient for me?

The challenge of Lent – of self-denial – affords us an opportunity not only to experience an elevated existence, but to gain a more natural access to the spiritual world, whatever form we believe that world to take. It is in those brief moments, when our spirit overcomes the flesh, that we become fully aware of our humanity and can cultivate a greater awareness of our moral existence on earth.

As Scottish historical novelist and playwright Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) once wrote, “Teach self-denial and make its practice pleasure, and you can create for the world a destiny more sublime that ever issued from the brain of the wildest dreamer.”

It’s not that “giving up” something we enjoy for 40 days will transform us into virtuous beings. Or that sacrificing our temporary happiness for someone else will make the world a better place (though it might be a good start). It’s the practice and exercise – the willingness to endure a struggle and to recognize our agency – that befits the capacities of human beings to achieve a higher mode of living.

In the words of the Unitarian preacher William Ellery Channing (1780-1842):

“I call that mind free, which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison to its own energy, which penetrates beneath the body and recognizes its own reality and greatness, which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.”

So often we look upon self-sacrifice as an undesirable “thing”, an experience more fitting for others that we can view admirably from a distance. And from that distance, we might subconsciously and quietly hope that we are not called away from our earthly pleasures to the higher and more uncomfortable challenge of living life as accountable human beings.

We are inclined to think of self-sacrifice as limiting, something that imprisons us, obstructing our hopes and dreams and preventing us from self-fulfillment.

But, is it not the opposite? Do we not become freer, our will more bolstered, from conquering the very confines of our nature?

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