The Seven Virtues#2: Abstinence

Humility, kindness, patience, or diligence, are characteristics I can admire. Chastity was never going to be a personally achievable objective. But abstinence and abstinence from food, what is that all about? Time to find out.  As gluttony is the sin so abstinence is its corresponding virtue.

Abstinence is well founded in the Abrahamic faiths and so deeply embedded in our culture.

Roman Catholics fast during Lent, other occasional specific religious holidays and for one hour just before receiving the Eucharistic.  In Islam, there is a month of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I have lived in Dubai during many celebrations of Ramadan and understand just how strictly it is followed.

There are major and minor fast days as part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty-four hours. This fast is absolute and the faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration and no food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

In all the religions the purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against impure thoughts, deeds, and words. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and in particular, almsgiving. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and paying Zakat during Ramadan is required of every adult Muslim man or woman who possesses a wealth of a certain minimum amount.

But for those of us living in a far more secular world, we have updated our conformance to abstinence and become obsessed by our own self-esteem and self-image. These have become the driver of our eating habits.

We are asked to be ‘beach ready’, the models in our adverts are invariably thin. We have a perception of ideal body shape which we share through advertising and social media.

These new norms have caused us to develop a strange relationship with our food. Of course, we eat too much, and the range and choice are excessive, particularly when you think about world poverty. However, we don’t think of third world malnutrition when abstaining from food; which we do a lot of the time.

The first world is on a continuous diet.

It was in 2004 that a BBC survey showed that more than one in four adults in the UK are trying to lose weight “most of the time”.  The poll estimates that this means 13 million people are effectively on a permanent diet.  Almost two in five (37%) women were dieting most of the time, compared to around just one in six (18%) of men.  The research found that although people were conscious of the need to eat well for the sake of their health, many were dieting to look good.

And it’s got no better, and by 2014 the Daily Mail reported: A record-breaking two out of three women tried to lose weight in the past year – and more men than ever are trying to slim down, figures have shown. This means that last year a total of 29million Britons decided to exercise or diet to ward off problems associated with weight gain.

If it’s not dieting, then we modify and manipulate our diets. Over half a million people in the UK are on a vegan diet and January this year was labelled Veganuary encouraging even more to try a plant-based diet.

There is a diet for everyone and it seems everyone is on a self-inflicted weight loss course.

I am not writing from any position of strength or moral righteousness.

I can control some of my ever-increasing list of ailments with a very restrictive diet. My diabetes is helped with a stricter control of carbohydrates and sugars than I would like, although I do have the orange coloured phial of insulin for the days when my control is less than hoped.

My stomach problems have all but disappeared but only by removing all gluten and most of the other fodmaps. I am supposed to be reintroducing them one-by-one on an exclusion diet, but I really can’t face 2 or 3 days of stomach ache, just so I can spread Marmite on to a slice of stodgy gluten-free bread.

Did I say that by choice I am also a vegetarian?

I have become a moral abstainer, and, I admit, I gloat just a little as I decline a slice of pizza. I may quote doctor’s instruction, but I am happy to see my abstinence reflected on the scales. A point made more poignant as this is Eating Disorder Week.

Food is the essential fuel of our lives but the pressure not to eat and deny ourselves, is pervasive.

In the Abrahamic faiths abstinence and denial strengthen more than the body. The original virtue of abstinence was more than a historical diet but a wider penance embracing the soul. Full denial that harms the body was seen as much a sin as gluttony. More importantly, all the faiths associate giving as an essential side dish to fasting.

Of all the virtues, abstinence is the one most widely embraced, but that doesn’t make any of us virtuous. In our modern culture of self-denial, the single-mindedly focused is on ‘me’.

As always there is a meaningful lesson in our history.