The more we get, the less excited we are to receive things. Adults are rarely as excited to receive gifts as children. Even the success that comes from hard work becomes less exhilarating over time. The first time someone gets an A on a Lit Trad paper, it’s a great day. But the second time it’s less exciting. And for those who always get good grades, they are concerned with maintaining their successful streak and fear a change in fortune.
Every time we get something that we want, it seems that we enjoy it for a moment, but then immediately remember many other things that we don’t have or become concerned that we will lose the good thing that we do have.
Yet we are constantly trying to make ourselves happy. Humans are always striving for more and trying to find new ways to innovate and make our lives easier and more comfortable.
Humans have a natural proclivity for tools that seems to extend far beyond the scope of other creatures’ abilities. Monkeys may use rocks and other crude implements, but they have not, as yet, built skyscrapers, trains or airplanes.
But for all our striving, we do not seem able to outgrow or progress beyond some unfathomable need. If anything, our constant inventing is indicative of our innate dissatisfaction with life as it is.
Making sacrifices or choosing to refrain from life’s pleasures can be difficult and at times frustrating, but it may not be the lack of those things that one becomes suddenly aware of. Perhaps what is truly unpleasant is the realization that even if one eats chocolate or watches Netflix for hours, they will still not feel any lasting satisfaction. Certain foods, entertainment or other such indulgences do offer a transitory brightness, but it fades almost as soon as it is enjoyed.
Perhaps instead of focusing on what is being given up, it would be good to think of what should be added to one’s life. Behind our shallow affinity for distraction is a deeper spiritual longing that can be glossed over or ignored more easily when one has unfettered access to material goods, which can be more easily noticed and addressed during a period of fasting and abstinence.
In Plato’s “Phaedo,” Socrates says that “the body introduces a turmoil and confusion and fear into the course of speculation, and hinders us from seeing the truth: and all experience shows that if we would have pure knowledge of anything we must be quit of the body, and the soul in herself must behold all things in themselves.”
Perhaps this is a bit extravagant. Physical needs are necessary for sustaining life, and there is nothing inherently wrong with candy, television or most other material goods. However, it is true that in excess they can distract us from spiritual or intellectual pursuit upon which the soul thrives.
Especially as students, we should constantly be seeking truth. While we need not nor should not reject all the gifts of the physical world, we should try to analyze and make sense of the world and look beyond to a higher truth.
Periods of fasting, like Lent, Yom Kippur or Ramadan, remind us that the visible world is not all that life consists of. Our lives are enriched by the invisible and mysterious knowledge that permeates creation and that we draw our attention to more fully when we deny ourselves physically. Fasting and abstinence can be seen as not so much a denial of the physical world so much as a reunion of it with the spiritual world beyond.