How to Practice Self-Denial—and What You'll Gain By Doing So
Sometimes I don't eat when I'm hungry. Sometimes I take painfully cold showers in the winter. Sometimes I steadfastly refuse to scratch an itch. Sometimes I deliberately deny myself things that are good for me. You should too.
Humans have insatiable appetites for pleasure, comfort, and possessions. If you put a man in the most comfortable life imaginable, you can bet that in short order he'd still find something to complain about. This is worth pondering. We seem to be such small, finite creatures in such an expansive world. How can it be that no amount of pleasure and comfort will ever satisfy us?
We struggle to obtain happiness, but we'll never get there. We can be happier than we were before, but we'll never be satisfied with it—we always want more. Many philosophers have wrestled with this problem of the human condition. You would pity a small creature struggling to reach something you know it could never attain. Are we no different? Are we pitiful?
The Christian perspective says, yes, we are. But it also says that what we really want is God: He Himself is the only thing that can satisfy us because we are made for Him and we incorrectly point our desires at worldly things, much to our chagrin.
Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.
- St Augustine of Hippo
Dust thou art
On Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent (just last week), we Catholics remember this desire for God in a special way. When the ashes are made into a cross on our foreheads, the priest says: "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris." In English, "Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return." We carry the reminder that we're all going to die and turn to dust and that our only hope for lasting happiness lies outside of this world. It's a special season for practicing self-denial and focusing on the eternal.
Self-denial is such a practical response to the human condition that even atheists can agree with much of the solution: "If these things will never satisfy me, then I should stop chasing after them. The very desires I feel need to be fought against or redirected. I need self-denial in order to see clearly." This is counter-intuitive for many, as it involves setting aside the things that we are drawn to in hope of something greater and more meaningful. The hedonist will not understand it. A person distracted by the constant audio and visual noise of modern life will not understand it. This understanding requires a kind of reflection that few people do.
Recognize that you are either a slave to your desires or you take control and govern yourself. For example, if you always eat dessert when it's available then you are a slave to it. The point is not to be a stoic who doesn't experience desires, but to control your desires and let them serve you only when you want them to. For example, you can still enjoy a slice of cake. But keep it in its place as a rare treat that you can decide to enjoy or not; the cake should not have power over you. If you gaze upon it and feel it pulling you in as you imagine what it tastes like and you just can't wait for a little taste—that feeling is its power over you.
It takes sustained effort to separate yourself from the things that you desire, so start small. Here are some ideas for practical every day self-denial:
- Skip dessert when everyone else at the table is having it. The more you want it, the more you should skip it (it doesn't count if it's something you don't like). Watch the others enjoy it and be happy for them.
- Take a cold shower instead of a nice warm one.
- Give up all social media for a day or a week.
- Go 24 hours with no food or water. You'll survive.
- If you're married, abstain from marital relations and all related pleasures for a month.
- When you're with friends and think of something funny or clever, keep it to yourself instead.
- Pick a day to do the household chores that someone else does, in addition to your own.
- In the car, drive in total silence instead of listening to something.
- Eat the leftovers or order the meal that sounds the least appetizing.
- Don't season your food at all for a day (no salt, pepper, garlic, etc).
- Sleep on the floor instead of your bed. Take only your blanket (no pillow or extra padding).
- Use a hand tool when you have a power tool available.
- Pick a day and wake up an hour earlier than you normally would.
- Give up alcohol for a week or a month.
- Skip your daily coffee.
- When a package arrives in the mail, set it aside and open it tomorrow instead of right away.
You'll notice that these things I've suggested you try denying yourself are all good things. You should of course be denying yourself bad things 100% of the time, but even denying yourself a good thing has merit. Self-denial is like a muscle; you have to exercise it regularly to build it up and if you don't use it, you lose it.
A rule of thumb is to practice three acts of self-denial each day. It doesn't have to be the same things every day; look for spur-of-the-moment opportunities. Don't inconvenience others. If it isn't difficult, you're not doing enough. Don't advertise what you're doing, but there's no need to cover it up either. You're doing this for yourself; not for anyone else. Don't be grumpy and sad about giving something up. Instead, be grateful for the opportunity to invest in your future self.
Do this consistently for a while, and you'll discover a few things:
- Your attachments to these little pleasures and comforts are much stronger than you realized.
- It gets easier to do these small acts of self-denial, to the point where they eventually become easy and you can move on to a more difficult version. This is building the virtue of temperance. For example, over a year you might progress from skipping dessert to skipping a meal to fasting all day to fasting for a week on only water.
- You'll see things more clearly the less power these attachments have over you. You'll make better, more well-thought-out decisions without being drawn in by the things that you want. It's like putting wax in your ears to block the sirens' call.
- When you do enjoy goods (like cake or a comfortable bed) you'll enjoy them more from a position of freedom than dependency. You'll be enjoying it on its own rather than filling a sense of need.
- When some big temptation comes your way, the kind that you'd once have been powerless before, you'll have the tools to turn away and do the right thing.
If you've never practiced self-denial, I encourage you to give it a try. Even if you're not a person of faith, the practical benefits alone make these exercises worthwhile. If you've done stuff like this—e.g., giving up chocolate for Lent—I encourage you to push harder. Continue growing. How much can you handle? How much will you be able to handle this time next year?