I like to keep myself on edge. In the wee hours of noon, with the midday sun calling me out from languid hibernation, staggering between sluggish noncompliance and somnambulant acrobatics, I greet the crushing shower water good morning. Warmth; acquiescence. But not before I shake things up a bit: crank the handle back to where penguins fear to tread and let the glacial darts shock me into premature nirvana. It hurts so good.
This odd fixation on pain ““ controlled and acute as it is ““ starts my day off right. It comforts me to know, going about my business in relative painlessness, that I’ve dealt with my daily dose of self-induced discomfort in obligatory piety, my own private self-denial. As though by depriving myself of the basic luxuries afforded by my bourgeois lifestyle, even if but for a fraction of my time spent immersed in the decadent shower heat, I’ve fulfilled some duty to some higher standard by which to govern my vice-filled life. A pleasure forged through pain.
There’s a term describing something similar. It’s called masochism, and though it has generated controversy over its status as a psychological disorder, it has always been frowned upon, or at least gazed at unnervingly, from afar. I’m no doctor, and I wouldn’t have such gall as to self-diagnose, but I’m pretty sure there’s some fragment of a masochistic impulse satisfied through my superficially ascetic hygiene habits.
Leftovers of my 12-year affair with Christianity, perhaps.
As those of the Christian and Catholic persuasions truck on through Lent, let us now take time to evaluate what we’ve given up, and for what. For surely every chocolate bar not eaten, every soda pop not drunken, every bitter expletive I cannot write right here ought not be forgone in vain.
One dastardly Lenten season in my early adolescence, with my voice still cracking and knees still wobbly under newfound inches and pounds, I had the brilliant idea of prohibiting myself from satisfying certain biological impulses I had taken certain secret pleasures in accommodating. I failed.
Sitting there in the aftermath of my failed abstention, I felt the burden of a thousand angry sermons (and an equal amount of Hail Marys) pressing down on my fractured dignity. I felt the chains of guilt suffocating me. Me ““ the lowly backslider who couldn’t quite live up to the standard left by that brown-locked Nazarene so long ago. It was different then, I told myself. Jesus didn’t have the Internet.
But it didn’t matter that my actions were natural, and harmless, and healthy. I had failed to resist temptation; I had failed to live up to God.
But damn, did it feel good. It felt good to obey what every cell in my body told me to do, rather than follow an archaic tradition of self-abdication. It felt good to splurge on human pleasure instead of the roundabout “higher good” of divine temperance.
To further understand this strange paradox ““ the equivalence of goodness with self-denial, of pleasure with pain ““ I turned to my trusty Catholic Catechism (Lent has roots in the Roman Catholic tradition). Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 4, V. Paragraph 1438 describes Lent as an “intense moment of the Church’s penitential practice.”
Penitent. Penance. Synonyms my thesaurus suggests: self-mortification, self-abasement, self-punishment. Like the brief cascade of cold water in my shower, Lent is a short-lived period of sacrifice to purge oneself of … pleasure? By making a virtue out of guilt and abstinence for the sake of self-denial, Lent is essentially an exercise in suppression. Human pleasures are foregone with the assumption that people are inherently sinful and undeserving, so one must not enjoy life too much.
There are other reasons people renounce things they love during Lent ““ health, willpower, prioritization. Yet for even these reasons, the idea of sacrifice is rooted in an attitude of self-deprecation. It is the idea that I am not good enough, I am not worthy, and if it is true, as Aristotle thought, that “We are what we repeatedly do,” I must abstain from the things that make me who I am in order to become a better person.
There are ways to improve ourselves without denouncing ourselves. Eat healthily, don’t give up junk food. Be kinder, don’t give up antagonizing people. There is no reason to set aside 40 days alone to improve yourself, nor is there reason to place yourself on a higher pedestal for some convoluted, self-righteous notion of self-denial. Guilt is not a virtue, and even asceticism is just hedonism in disguise.
The Lenten spirit is one of self-deprecation, an immolation based on the masochistic impulse as a spiritual virtue. I, for one, will not apologize for the things I want. I will not feel guilty for the things that make me happy. I will not deprive myself of my humanity. This Lenten season, I’m giving up all restraint.