24 February 2012

The Borrowers

There's an old joke that goes, "for Lent, I'm giving up abstinence." It's one of those throwaway clichés that hides a serious idea. The forgoing of luxuries on Lent is built on the idea that privation is good for the soul. The contemporary rationale for doing this is that giving up is a form of spiritual discipline, emphasizing the gifts of the spirit over earthly goods. It is, however, also rooted in an ancient and medieval distrust of the desires of the flesh. In Summa Theologica, for example, Aquinas discusses the Lenten fast as having been designed to cut down on sperm counts:
[…] fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. […] Such [foods] are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products, such as milk from those that walk on the earth, and eggs from birds. For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.
I'm not singling out Catholicism here—Judaism and Islam have their days of fasting; asceticism is practiced in Yogic and Buddhist traditions. There are secular equivalents, too, in the practice of "detoxification" or athletes refraining from sex the day before the big match. We humans seem very distrustful of our bodies, and sometimes with good reasons. Left unchecked, desires can distract us from what is necessary or lead obsessively to our ruin. But—and admittedly I'm speaking here from a purely secular, non-religious standpoint—our desires are also who we are and determine what our possibilities might be. Ultimately, what we do for pleasure are the things that teach us our truest selves, the things that lift us, however briefly, out of mere existence. I've alluded to it before, but "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" is a very wise song masquerading as a very silly song.

In this spirit I'd like to offer up a new tradition, not an alternative to Lent, but in conversation with Lent. I suggest that this secular festival be called "Borrowing"—not an exact parallel tense-wise, but you get the idea. For this forty days I challenge you to take on a luxury of some sort. It could be a new food, a new activity, a new sexual position. It doesn't have to be a vice per se, but in honor of the election, you get extra points if your new habit would make Rick Santorum cry. The important thing is that you follow this taking-on where it leads you. Indulge yourself. Give your new thing a chance. Maybe it will turn out you don't like it, maybe it will change you deeply and permanently. Either way it will be a success.

Some suggestions: try not to make your Borrowing taking-on simply be more of something you already like. The spirit of Borrowing is the widening of possibilities and the re-imagining of one's self through one's passions. You might use this Borrowing time to try out something you always had meant to get around to: learning to dance salsa, writing a book. Or you might use this time to try out something you're sure you don't like but which brings pleasure to others: country music, say, or gin, or licorice. Maybe if you're inspired it will be a chance for you to do something you've always thought was wrong.

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