The recent blog post by Margarita Mooney on suffering and flourishing got me to thinking. One of the traditions of my faith is the fast. I will be the first to admit that I do not fast as much as I should. But fasting is a type of suffering I believe can contribute to our flourishing. Many people think of the denial of food as their idea of fasting, but fasting also includes the denial of whatever distracts us such as media, entertainment, sex etc. On the surface, this does not seem to led to happiness. It does not serve our immediate desires, but I have found that fasting can contribute to our long term flourishing. This is my experience and I have no scientific data to back this up but here are some reasons why I think that fasting can be a part of our larger flourishing.
Increases our appreciation of what we already have – Go without sugar for a week and boy does that dessert taste good when you break your fast. Go without food for a couple of days and your next meal will taste so good you will not believe it. Fasting helps us to appreciate what we usually take for granted. And gratitude is a big key to our long-term happiness.
Even if you have never fasted before you probably know what it is like to appreciate something that you miss. I am fortunate to be a very physically healthy person. Usually most days I do not think about the benefits of being healthy. But when I get sick then I think about the benefits of health. I may lay in bed trying to breath – something I realized I took for granted. Or I may have a headache and think about the day when my head will be clear. In a way fasting is like this. We temporarily deny ourselves something which I believe ultimately helps us to enjoy what we deny ourselves all the more.
Connects us to others who do not possess what we have – There is a big difference between voluntarily giving up food and not having the money for food. But giving up food on my own does allow me to better understand what it is like to be hungry. It puts me a little in touch with those who are less fortunate than I.
Flourishing is not just about my personal comfort and happiness. It is also about being connected to the rest of humanity. It is about being fully human and knowing that we have to work to make the world a better place. Fasting can help me to be empathetic in a way that I cannot be if I never experience some of the pain those with limited resources often have. It reminds me of pain that I must play a role in alleviating.
Before someone says that I am equating fasting with poverty, let me be clear that I am not doing that. Some individuals choose to live below their means to help those in misfortune. They are willing to live simply so that others can live. That is not fasting. It is a commitment beyond the fast. I admire such individuals. Fasting is not a replacement for this level of commitment but rather a reminder of what some sacrifice to help others and that we should do our part even if we are not ready to make that degree of a sacrifice.
Gives us time to think about what is important – One of the arguments for a fast is that we can use the time we normally use for cooking, viewing media or sex to be in prayer or meditation. This works better for some types of fasts than others. But fasting can help us to think about aspects of our lives that normally do not get sufficient attention. As a Christian this means a focus upon my relationship with Christ. But even those who are not religious may find a great benefit in spending extra time considering elements of our lives that go beyond our materialist concerns.
Fasting may be particularly important when there are important decisions to be made or if there are situations that demand our complete attention. There was a period in my life where I fasted from television one day a week. There was a certain amount of turmoil occurring in my life at this time and I found this to be a great way for considering what was happening around me. It helped to keep me centered during a troubling time. Did I miss television on those days? Yes, but at the end of a television-less day, I found myself more satisfied that I made further progress in thinking on the deeper issues I had to get a handle on.
Strengthens our ability to be disciplined – A disciplined life is a better life. This has been my experience. The people I see who get themselves into trouble usually do so because of a lack of discipline. People who do not have discipline in their substance abuse get into trouble. Students who do not have discipline in their studying habits get into trouble. Individuals who do not have discipline in how they conduct their interpersonal relationships get into trouble. I can provide other examples but I think the picture is clear. A disciplined life is a better life.
We can think of fasting as practice for being more disciplined. There is nothing wrong with eating. Obviously we need to eat to live. But to deny ourselves eating is to practice being able to deny ourselves something we want. I have to believe that denying ourselves those things that are not inherently harmful makes it easier for us to deny ourselves those things that are harmful. For example, denying ourselves television when we have time for it makes it easier to turn off the boob tube when we have work to do. Likewise other types of fasts also help us to be a more disciplined people. I would love to see research investigating a possible statistical relationship between fasting and various pro-social behaviors. If anyone knows of such research please send me a link.
These are some of my ideas about fasting and why it can be an important practice for us. I wrote about fasting from my Christian perspective, but tried to offer reasons that may resonate among those without that perspective. Fasting does not seem to be rational. It does not make sense at the surface level that giving up that which gives us pleasure would make our lives, and possibly the lives of others, better. I cannot prove that this is true except that this has been my experience. I started this post stating that I probably do not fast as much as I should. Perhaps that is something I should change now as I have considered it further. Maybe I should fast a bit and think about that.