Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Food, Sex, Joy

So far I've found that merely focusing on--noticing, tuning in to--joy in my life somehow creates more things to be joyful about. I'm not in any danger of becoming a Pollyanna (I doubt anyone who knows me very well was concerned about that), but I've felt...more content these last few days. And I've become aware of the fact that I sometimes engage in pleasures that then prohibit my occupying that same time with joys. There's nothing wrong with pleasure per se--I think Western religions, Christianity in particular, have given it a bad rap because humans have such a propensity for misusing pleasure. Many people, myself regrettably included, have trouble discriminating between the pleasure itself and its abuse.

 For example, sexual pleasure in itself isn't sinful or dirty or bad (I'm working on overcoming earlier programming in order to really believe this with my whole heart, but I can agree with it as an intellectual, theological statement). Sex can be an avenue for experiencing some of the most profound joys of which humans are capable--anyone who has had really fantastic sex, or even pretty good sex, either alone or with a partner, knows this (go ahead, try and think of something that's more overwhelming, more intense, more FUN than an orgasm. I'm waiting...). Precisely because it's such a powerful experience, it has the potential to be misused and abused. Treating ourselves or others as objects--as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves--is the hallmark of sexual sin, and while it may be temporarily pleasurable, ultimately there is no real joy in it and it has the potential to be incredibly destructive (see: Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, et al). On the other hand, I fully believe that under the right circumstances orgasm constitutes prayer.

 The same is true of food; I could and someday may write an entire book on this, so I won't get too far into it today, but I think part of the reason for the obesity epidemic (and, in part, the spate of eating disorders) in the United States and other westernized countries is the replacement of joy in nourishment with dull, numbing pleasures that aren't even that pleasurable. A microwavable bowl of Easy Mac or a bag of Cheetos isn't satisfying because it isn't really in its nature to satisfy or nourish; it's eaten mindlessly in front of the computer or TV, gone in a matter of minutes without much attention paid to its passing. It's artificial and requires minimal input of effort on our parts. You finish it and find yourself no longer hungry but still...unsatisfied.  Contrast this with a meal cooked and eaten with friends. There's wine and conversation as the dishes are being prepared, the easy music of knives on cutting boards and spoons in bowls filling the background. Laughing, you move to the kitchen, eat the meal, praising each others' dishes and learning about the latest developments in each of your lives. As you eat, as you talk, you drink each other in. And though you may have eaten less than in the previous Cheetos scenario, you are filled and deeply satisfied. That is the difference between joy and pleasure in the negative sense.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Giving up Asceticism for Lent

So, this Lent I made a commitment to seek out and open myself more fully to joy. This may seem counterintuitive at first: Lent is, after all, a penitential season, a time when Christians examine their consciences and repent of those destructive habits of thought and action that injure their relationships with the world and with the Divine (or, in shorthand, "sins"). Historically, this has meant taking up disciplines of fasting and prayer and availing oneself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Giving something up for Lent is popular, too: chocolate, or reality TV, or alcohol. Catholics give up meat on Fridays, which isn't an option for me as I'm completely vegetarian already; my parents, who are Orthodox, adhere to a strict fast for the duration of Lent, which means they're essentially vegans for forty days. I went into Ash Wednesday pondering what I might give up this year: smoking, which I've attempted to little effect five years running? Go vegan, like my parents? Fast completely on Fridays?

On Ash Wednesday, the priest at my church gave one of the best, most relevant Ash Wednesday homilies I've ever heard (it must be difficult, after all, to have to write a new, fresh sermon on essentially the same topic year after year). One sentence in particular stood out for me: "God doesn't particularly care whether you give up chocolate or trash TV...those things in themselves aren't sinful. It's how you use or abuse them that is." And so began pondering the nature of self-denial, and how even ascetic acts, undertaken for the wrong reasons, can be avenues for wilfulness and pride rather than ways of getting closer to the Divine. I'm guilty of this. I've joked to friends at times about "giving up asceticism for Lent," and the idea has seemed so ridiculous that everyone's laughed and I've gone about my business, feeling a little guilty because I know that, for me, so many of the things that seem like self-denial are actually (futile) attempts at wresting the controls from the Universe. Because obviously I'm a much better, more experienced driver. Para ejemplo:

Back in college, when I was seriously anorexic, Lent was one of my favorite seasons of the Church. Not because I enjoyed the purple vestments or the endless services of Holy Week, but because I had permission--no, a mandate--to fast to my heart's content. It wasn't pathology; it was religious expression. I wasn't starving myself, I was purging my evil, fleshly body of its sins (n.b, if you're playing 'defense mechanism bingo' at home, you can cross off "rationalization"). For me, giving up eating, or eating particular things, wasn't "giving up" anything (and certainly not giving up control to the Divine); far from a sacrifice, it was another painful, grasping attempt at imposing my own will--which, I'm given to understand, is NOT the point of Christianity, and not the point of Lent in particular.

I'm no longer in and out of the hospital every six months, but self-denial and self-control, especially as they relate to food--comment se dit?--they remain...issues. As in, having too much of both and being painfully inflexible. And so, as I listened to that sermon on Wednesday, I made up my mind not to give anything up for Lent, but rather to take on the discipline of finding joy in the everyday. Not mere pleasure, mind you--which is so often shallow, and fleeting--but real, authentic joy that nourishes me and others and opens that connection to Divinity. I'm starting to work through what the difference is between pleasure and joy, and I'm pleased to report that in the past few days I have found a number of joyful moments--some quiet and meditative, some raucous and full of laughter. I'll be trying to keep this blog up to date over Lent, and I'll write about my experiences. Coming next: How are pleasure and joy different? Why do people talk about 'guilty pleasures' but not 'guilty joys'? Neither is bad, per se, but one seems more meaningful...what pleasures am I willing to give up to make room for more joys in my life? What about you?