The Unpopular Notion of Self-Denial
We live in a land of plenty: food, drink, and comfort. There are some in our country that lack these things. I am touched by those locked in homelessness and those without food and shelter, but that does not describe most of us. We live in a country marked by opulence and decadence, a culture that indulges in pleasure.
As we continue our study of “The Guide to the Good Life,” by William Irvine, we consider the Third Stoic Technique of Self-Denial. This may not be a popular practice, but it is one that has the potential to lead us to peace and tranquility.
The Stoics believed that accumulating fame and fortune rarely if ever contributed to the Good Life. They believed that happiness did not come from getting the things that we desire, but rather, from learning to desire the things that we already possess. We learn to desire the things that we possess by periodically denying ourselves of them.
“We accomplish this,” writes Irvine, “by allowing ourselves to become hungry or thirsty, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed even though a soft one is available.” When we do this, Irvin asserts that we receive three benefits: 1) It will harden us against any misfortune that might befall us, 2) We will grow confident that we can handle any discomfort that might befall us, and 3) It will help us appreciate what we already have.
In other words, Self-Denial helps us grow!! It is when we periodically deny ourselves of the things that we desire and possess, that we learn the value of our things and the value of life.
What are some ways that I practice this technique? I fast by temporarily depriving myself of food. I skip breakfast most days and on others, I skip breakfast and lunch. It is not often, but I restrict the sugar that I eat. Practicing these restrictions helps me appreciate the sweets and the meals that I missed.
I often strap on a 40 to 60 lb. pack and hike into a forest and sleep on a 1 ½ inch pad in the cold of Fall and Winter. I endure the cold, the weight of the pack, and the burning quads as I climb in and out of the canyons and valleys. My heart is pounding in my chest and my breaths are deep. It is punishing.
I have ridden my bicycle across the state of Indiana in one day. It was my 55th birthday and I remember my father’s response: “That doesn’t sound like fun to me.” It was punishing as well. And I only say that it was punishing because of the temporary pain and suffering that I experienced during the ride. Afterwards, nothing can compare to the joy and satisfaction of showering and laying my head down on my pillow.
This past Spring, I hiked in and out of the Grand Canyon twice: 26 miles and over 22,000 feet of elevation. It was exhausting. It was challenging. And yes, it hurt. The first hike out was through a blizzard with snow and 40-50 mile an hour winds. But the exhilaration that followed taught me to appreciate the warmth and the comfort of shelter.
These are just a few of the things that I do to deprive myself of the creature comforts that I’ve become accustomed.
What are some of the things that you do?
I have many friends that practice Lent by fasting or restricting other material possessions or activities in their lives. This is usually for a period of 40 days once a year. I’m certain that they experience joy when they re-introduce the food or activity into their lives. They have a newfound appreciation for these things. Imagine if the practice of Lent was more often.
Self-Denial doesn’t sound like a remedy for an exotic illness or an intervention that will sell a lot of books, but I believe that it is this very practice that will bring peace and tranquility to your life. Self-Denial softens us, and hardens us. It awakens us, and quiets us; sharpens our senses and then soothes them. It costs us nothing, but when practiced regularly, helps us find satisfaction.