A few weeks ago (months maybe?) a reader asked me via Facebook if I’d write about chastity vs hedonism. Sure, I said. I like reader prompts…
Chastity is related to abstaining from sexual activities of all kinds. Hedonism implies a rampant indulgence in all lustful desires. Hedonism conjures up images of luxurious excesses of all kinds of fleshly pleasures, not just sexual ones. I think the real issue in these words is what role does austerity play in our lives? Should it have one? If so, why and what does that look like?
This subject is tricky because it is completely subjective! What is one man’s hedonistic splurge is another man’s boring ol’ routine. Most of the traditions that emphasize austerities (fasting, celibacy, extreme physical practices, emotional suppression, for some quick examples) usually, but not always, have strict rules for personal and communal behaviour and turn these into issues of morality. This can be very tricky because often issues of morality, particularly in conservative Christian America, intertwine with standards of economic class, as well as race and gender. What screams Good Christian for one group will be unacceptable for another kind of Christian elsewhere.
The first question that needs to be answered is quite personal, what role does austerity play in our lives? Once we can come to grips with this question the other ones will fall into place. If we’ve grown up with extraordinary strictness and control, indulgence might very well be what the soul needs for a time. For some people, strict austerities can be very beneficial, for others they might be damaging.
I have a mixed relationship with fasting and austerity. I do not respond well to hard and fast rules. Before my years of breeding I used to observe Lenten fasts semi-Orthodox style (vegan, no alcohol, and so on). I would fast without food on the Equinoxes. I may get back to these practices. However, I now find that these practices aren’t always very healthy for me. I struggle even with my gentle Monday ‘fasts’ in honor of Shiva. See, in my teens and early 20s I struggled, like so many young women do, with issues of perfectionism, control, and body image. I had been an athlete so I knew enough about nutrition and self-esteem not to fall into the traps of anorexia or bulimia (I was never able to make myself throw up on cue, anyway). However, I ate the same thing for breakfast and lunch for years. I would never eat seconds. I pulled the skin off chicken, rarely ate sweets, had the smallest serving of things, and so on. Basically I was hungry all the time and I equated this with positive self-control, being slim, and all kinds of other ‘virtues.’ For me, going without in the name of virtue is a mental mind field. I have to be very clear about why I am doing what I’m doing and what my boundaries are.
The flip side of austerity is indulgence. This is also something I struggle with! In my world indulgent is about the worst word you could call me. In my upbringing you pulled your own weight, you did not ask for help, you solved your own problems. My parents are absurdly competent. They rarely get sick. I’m pretty sure that if one of them ever comes down with cancer they won’t tell anyone until they have two weeks to live and can’t row out from the island they live on. Resting? Not doing? Not working? Utterly indulgent.
My indulgence has nothing to do with sex, drugs and rock n roll. In fact, it might be healthy for me if it did!
What’s your goal? I don’t think austerities are virtuous in and of themselves. They can be abused too easily. So too can hedonism. Plenty of people think they’re being rebellious and shocking and wild when really they’re just being irresponsible and avoiding showing up for their lives. Are your austerities an escape mechanism? Do you think that you have to be extreme in some way to worship a particular deity? You might want to check in with others who honor that deity, or a therapist, or a good friend, or spiritual mentor. Sometimes extremes are beneficial, but sometimes they are ways that keep us punishing ourselves.
What is your goal? I can’t speak for every god, but it seems to me, from my experience with my gods and from what others show me by their examples, that the gods aren’t out to hurt us; they’re too busy. However, when extremes are asked of us it is usually for a purpose: our strengthening or discipline (in the positive sense), as a mark of devotion, or for some other end.
I don’t think the issue is chastity over/against hedonism. I don’t think the question is austerity or hedonism. If it is, the answer is Yes. I say yes to both austerity and to hedonism, because both are necessary to my spiritual growth.