There are all kinds of fasting practices that re-orient us toward the common good.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent for Christians around the globe. Based on the example of Jesus, who fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, Lent is the season leading up to Easter that has traditionally been understood as a time of fasting. Today, many Christians have reduced the practice of fasting during Lent to giving up some luxury — chocolate, alcohol, coffee, or television — for the duration of the season. Although such sacrifices are fasts of sorts, it is particularly easy to lose sight of the reality that the Christian tradition of fasting isn’t simply about giving things up, but rather about disciplining ourselves in order that we might more fully and more healthfully participate in a larger purpose. The end of fasting during Lent is not our own personal good, but rather the common good, the flourishing of our places and ultimately the world. Jesus was able to endure 40 days of fasting (and some brutal temptations to political, religious, and economic power) because he saw himself as part of a larger mission — one of healing and liberation.
Our modern Western Culture, fueled by individualism and barraged by a ceaseless stream of advertisements, is rapidly consuming its way toward destruction — consuming land, atmosphere, and all manner of natural resources in our ceaseless pursuit of more. A key part of the problem as Wendell Berry and other critics have pointed out is that we have founded our lives on the assumption of limitless growth. “[The] commonly accepted basis of our economy,” Berry says, “is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless want, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limits whatever they conceive as desirable — a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.” We live with this limitless mindset in a world that clearly has limited amounts of some of the things we need and desire most, clean air and water; land; oil, for instance. What are we to do?
An essential part of the way forward, away from the calamitous ecological effects of climate change and other unsustainable behaviors is — slowly and voluntarily — to submit ourselves to limits and to seeking something more than what we believe is best for ourselves as individuals. We must also cultivate mindfulness of the well-being of our families and neighbors who surround us in the places we call home, as our future is deeply entwined with theirs, and the health of our own place is similarly bound up with the health of all other places around the globe. Lent and practices of fasting in other faith traditions (for instance, Sabbath observance in Judaism or the month of Ramadan in Islam), teach us to live within the bounds of a limit for the sake of a story that is bigger than each of our individual lives. As men, many of us are intimately familiar with the sort of sacrifices and self-discipline needed to excel at a sport, an art, or our particular career. Seasons of fasting gently teach us to exercise similar discipline in areas of our lives that may be starting to get out of control and pose a threat to ourselves and those around us.
There are all kinds of fasting practices that teach us discipline and re-orient us toward the common good. Although the possibilities are endless, and although we should seek a personal way of fasting that fits who we are as individuals and fits the network of relationships in which we are embedded (family, faith community, neighborhood, business), allow me to make a few diverse suggestions that are relevant to us as men in the hope that one of these might spark your imagination and be adapted in a way that fits your own context. Each of these suggestions is framed in a such a way that it is not simply about bettering ourselves as individuals, but about disciplining ourselves to be mindful of our limits and to seek the common good of our places and the world:
- Take a technology Sabbath. Several years ago, a group of Jewish artists issued a Sabbath Manifesto and inaugurated a National Day of Unplugging. Their website offers excellent resources that explain the benefits of periods of fasting from technology and how such fasts can re-orient us toward a rich common life. Unplugging from television and Internet technologies will also drastically reduce our exposure to advertising, the ubiquitous force that entices us to consume more. Coincidentally, the National Day of Unplugging — a 24-hour block that in the traditional Jewish custom goes from sundown to sundown — occurs during Lent this year, on March 1-2.
- Walk and bike more. Drive less. Pick a place to which you regularly drive — perhaps work, the gym, the grocery store or some other place — and commit to walking or biking there for a specified period of time (e.g., Lent). As you go back and forth on foot or on bike, the slower pace will offer you an opportunity to become more keenly aware of the life of your neighborhood. Be attentive to the natural, the business and the residential landscapes as you move through them. Not only will you consume less gas, which is good for the world, but cultivating attentiveness will ultimately be beneficial to the common good of your place. Alexandra Horowitz’s new book On Looking is a wonderful resource on how to cultivate attentiveness as we walk about our neighborhoods.
- Adopt a diet that is attentive to whole, seasonal, and local foods. Our bodies bear the burden, literally, of our addiction to processed foods, and particularly to carbohydrates that we consume in the form of high fructose corn syrup and gluten-heavy grains. As we adapt our eating habits, we should simultaneously be attentive to the seasonal rhythms of local foods that are available in our particular place. Local foods not only bear a smaller carbon footprint which is good for the earth, but also can lead us into relationships with the farmers who produce them. Disciplining my diet in these ways is the fast that I personally am undertaking during Lent, a journey that began with the 21-day, whole-body detox suggested by Whole Living magazine.
- Reject patterns of isolation in our lives. As men, we are particularly vulnerable to the sort of rugged Marlboro Man individualism, a narrative about the world that coaxes us into believing that we don’t need others. Take a hard look at your life: what activities do you regularly do by yourself that you could be doing with others? Resist the temptation to work through lunch, instead take a break and enjoy the mid-day meal with a friend or co-worker. Find a friend or two who will go to the gym and work out with you. If you live with your family, spend more time together; make a big deal out of preparing and eating meals together, for instance. If you live alone, develop routines of inviting friends and neighbors over for meals. Spend less time at home alone in front of a computer or television screen, but rather get deeply involved in activities that are going on in your neighborhood and/or faith community. If you need inspiration on this journey, John McKnight and Peter Block’s book The Abundant Community, offers a powerful vision of the possibilities of a richer community life.
Yes, seasons of fasting such as Lent can be difficult and even painful at times, but if we undertake them in a way that is mindful of the people and the places that surround us, we will find a deeper and richer life that makes the temporary pain quite endurable.