Temperance – week 6

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

This week, I cut off digital media from my daily life, and reflected on the surprising upsides of fasting.

I originally thought that, as time passed, the fast would cut closer to the bone. But at the start of week 6, habit and adaptation seem to have the opposite effect. The fasts of the previous weeks hardly register anymore – I’ve even overcome the drowsiness of abstinence from coffee – and I found ways of accomodating. On week 6, I originally aimed to fast from Facebook. For professional reasons, keeping off Messenger is problematic: this is how I interact with many contacts and collaborators, and asking each of them to swap for email seems tedious. Instead, I decided to fast from ‘digital media’, defined as anything I would read on a screen and involves ‘scrolling’. That is feeds from Facebook and Twitter, as well as online papers – Le Monde and The Age. My engagement with the outside world will be through personal contacts, environmental clues, or targeted searches. I will see what this does to my brain, but I can’t imagine it being very noxious.

Previous fasts required discipline, this one will require attention. On the second day, I caught myself browsing my Facebook feed without even realising it. Digital media is such an important part of our lives that it no longer registers as an activity. I didn’t crave it, I just entered the URL and started scrolling out of pure, mindless habit. While other fasts had more to do with fortitude – persistence in doing something slightly difficult, even overcoming a measure of social awkwardness – fasting from digital media brings me closer to prudence. What I need is not so much discipline as mindfulness.

We associate temperance with austere discomfort. I am developing a different understanding of the virtue: it is, rather, about acknowledging the power of our appetite for pleasure, and developing a wiser relationship to it. The Lenten fast, by imposing rules and forcing me to give up on habitual sources of gratification, releases a reservoir of energy which I harness towards new pursuits – the lofty kind, yes, but also sensory pursuits beyond my usual scope. By doing so, I might also reset other habits. The week had a difficult start, I was tired and upset on Tuesday. I knew that I couldn’t compensate with meat, snacks, alcohol, coffee, porn or mindless scrolling. So lunchtime, after a large tofu sandwich, I went on a quest for the perfect dessert. It took me to a pastry shop at Emporium I often pass and, for some reason, was always too shy to patronise. One hot cross-bun and caramel Zonut* later, I was ready to face my afternoon (*a Zonut is a blend between a croissant and a donut – and yes, even though my fast is rather strenuous, zonuts clearly fall within the ‘allowed’ category).

In certain traditions, halfway through Lent, you can relax the fast for a day, and have a small portion of something you gave up. I woke up at 5h15 on Wednesday, with a headache and a long to-do list. At 8h30, after a dawn of intense editing, I took a pause on my coffee-fast. At Brother Baba Budan, I ordered a double short black. And you know what, I didn’t enjoy it that much. This made me further reflect on the meaning of a fast, and temperance more generally. It is not about depriving yourself of the thing you love for sheer self-punishment, but to create a temporary distance, and assess whether your relationship to a certain consumption habit – drink, food, sex or information – is a source of deep enjoyment, giving the sense of a life fully lived; or whether it is an inherited addiction, a habit formed in the past vampirising the present. The latter, it handles through cunning. Temperance does not say ‘nevermore’ and face the risk of a backlash, no, it more gently says, ‘of course, but not right now, soon though’. When later comes, simply repeat.

After six days abstaining from digital media, I couldn’t but wonder how pointless the thing is. Not only did I not suffer but, after mindfulness took me off automatic mode, I noticed the lack of scrolling activities about as little as I did their presence earlier in the week. This, even as I saw breaking news of an American missile launched at Syria. Learning more about the what, the why, the where, the who, the how of this potential crisis right away would only distract me from anything else I might achieve on the day. While I believe we should make effort in understanding the workings of the world we live in, at the local, regional, national and global level, I don’t believe that has to be done right here, right now. Much better to wait a little, let journalists and analysts do their work, let the public digest the first wave of emotion – and then only, if the issue hasn’t already died of its own, gather enough knowledge to form a solid opinion, and – if this proves to be the right path – organise action. For the rest, our lives are simply too short to follow the news.

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