Fasting for Christmas

This Christmas, I'll be fasting.

There is, of course, a long tradition of religious fasting, including the Nativity Fast celebrated in both the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.  Fasting is also an important part of the Mormon faith, as it is among Buddhists and Muslims at other times of the year.  In every case, fasting is considered a means of drawing closer to God and gaining self-discipline and control. 

Among the many advocates of fasting have been Benjamin Franklin, Hermann Hesse, and Mohandas Gandhi.  Not all of these were political conservatives, but I believe there is an important connection between fasting and conservative thinking.

For me, fasting is a time of reflection, reading, walks, and beautiful music.  It is a time to withdraw and reflect, a state of mind that is inherently "conservative."

Contrary to popular myth, fasting is not particularly difficult.  Whether it's an "intermittent" fast of 14 to 24 hours or an "extended" fast of more than one day, in my experience, fasting is actually quite pleasant once the initial cravings are overcome.  This is the point: cravings are overcome by mental discipline.

It is the same mental discipline that distinguishes conservatives from liberals.  When a difficulty arises, liberals always resort to the easy and undisciplined "solution" of writing checks on someone else's account.  Just this past week, they've tried to preserve higher taxes by opposing the GOP tax bill.  For true conservatives, limited government is an article of faith.  They recognize that life cannot be "saved" in the absence of individual responsibility.

Aside from its many other benefits, fasting is a wonderful exercise in mental discipline.  It's true that the "water only" four-day fast that I recently completed involved some "hunger pangs" during which the body was sending out strong signals, urging me to relent – and the fridge was only steps away at the time.  But the mind can control the appetites of the body – another connection between conservatism and fasting.  At its core, conservatism always involves a denial of excess.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of conservatism is prudence – the care one takes with others and with the world in which one lives.  Prudence also applies to fasting, which has traditionally been regarded as a powerful exercise in self-control and healing.   

In my case, I overcame hunger pangs by focusing my mind on the known benefits of fasting.  I knew that even as a vegan, my body was feeling heavy and bloated.  I needed to escape from the routine of consuming and digesting food.

And I did.  I was energized.  I slept less, felt less tired, and experienced a higher metabolism and a clearer mind.  Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, I was reluctant to end my fast, which became easier the longer it continued.  Several of my friends were incredulous.  How could fasting get easier the longer it went on?  I felt, as Kafka put it, that I "alone knew ... how easy it was to fast." 

Among classic writers, by the way, Kafka was the most incisive in what he said about Big Government.  In The Metamorphosis, he wrote, "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."  Aptly put.

Was Kafka a conservative?  I believe he was.  His writing is filled with a defense of the individual and with fearful intimations of the rise of totalitarianism.  His novels and stories constitute a monumental plea for the freedom of the individual from authoritarianism of all kinds.  The Castle is the most compelling anti-authoritarian book of its time.  And yes, Kafka was a vegetarian.

Like Kafka, I don't fast for weight loss.  (Kafka, "possibly an anorexic," did not need to lose weight.)  Nor do I fast for ethical reasons.  Peter Singer may believe that turkeys have the same rights as humans, but I don't share that belief.  There is nothing particularly sinful about roasting a turkey or cooking a ham.  I just don't think meat and other animal products are healthy in my particular case.

For me, fasting is a time to surrender and simplify.  A time for rest and contemplation.  And what better time than during the holidays?

Lately, I've been re-reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, a book that means much more to me now than it did in my twenties.  And yes, Merton was a vegetarian and an advocate of fasting.  Merton was a natural conservative who wished to discover the "permanent things" and to discard what was ephemeral and distracting.  Like all conservatives, he was committed to the pursuit of truth, and he understood that truth pointed back to the inherited traditions of his civilization. As a Trappist monk, he devoted himself to the uninterrupted celebration of those traditions, including the celebration of Christ's birth.  That, as he describes it in The Seven Storey Mountain, is what led him to the monastic life of the Trappists to begin with.    

This brings us back to Christmas.  I'll be fasting during the holidays, in part because it seems appropriate as a counterbalance to the excess that always accompanies the season.  There was a time when Christmas was simpler.  It heralded the arrival of a fruitcake from my aunt in Michigan or a Swiss Colony box from one of dad's colleagues at work.  Now the only way to enjoy that simplicity is to make Christmas simple.  There are many ways to do that.  Fasting is one of them.

What I want for Christmas is a peaceful time of reflection and rest accompanied by fasting, but as a conservative, I believe in self-responsibility and individual choice.  I don't presume to influence others.  It doesn't work, anyway.  Tell someone else what to do, and he will do the opposite.  Ban pizza, and he'll be texting Papa John's in minutes.    

To be clear, I'm not fasting on Christmas Day.  That would be a bit much, and it would hurt the feelings of those who work to put together the Christmas dinner.  I'll save the fasting for before and after.

And I hope that this Christmas, for you and for me, will be blessed with joy, peace, and well-being.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

This Christmas, I'll be fasting.

There is, of course, a long tradition of religious fasting, including the Nativity Fast celebrated in both the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.  Fasting is also an important part of the Mormon faith, as it is among Buddhists and Muslims at other times of the year.  In every case, fasting is considered a means of drawing closer to God and gaining self-discipline and control. 

Among the many advocates of fasting have been Benjamin Franklin, Hermann Hesse, and Mohandas Gandhi.  Not all of these were political conservatives, but I believe there is an important connection between fasting and conservative thinking.

For me, fasting is a time of reflection, reading, walks, and beautiful music.  It is a time to withdraw and reflect, a state of mind that is inherently "conservative."

Contrary to popular myth, fasting is not particularly difficult.  Whether it's an "intermittent" fast of 14 to 24 hours or an "extended" fast of more than one day, in my experience, fasting is actually quite pleasant once the initial cravings are overcome.  This is the point: cravings are overcome by mental discipline.

It is the same mental discipline that distinguishes conservatives from liberals.  When a difficulty arises, liberals always resort to the easy and undisciplined "solution" of writing checks on someone else's account.  Just this past week, they've tried to preserve higher taxes by opposing the GOP tax bill.  For true conservatives, limited government is an article of faith.  They recognize that life cannot be "saved" in the absence of individual responsibility.

Aside from its many other benefits, fasting is a wonderful exercise in mental discipline.  It's true that the "water only" four-day fast that I recently completed involved some "hunger pangs" during which the body was sending out strong signals, urging me to relent – and the fridge was only steps away at the time.  But the mind can control the appetites of the body – another connection between conservatism and fasting.  At its core, conservatism always involves a denial of excess.

Perhaps the greatest attribute of conservatism is prudence – the care one takes with others and with the world in which one lives.  Prudence also applies to fasting, which has traditionally been regarded as a powerful exercise in self-control and healing.   

In my case, I overcame hunger pangs by focusing my mind on the known benefits of fasting.  I knew that even as a vegan, my body was feeling heavy and bloated.  I needed to escape from the routine of consuming and digesting food.

And I did.  I was energized.  I slept less, felt less tired, and experienced a higher metabolism and a clearer mind.  Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, I was reluctant to end my fast, which became easier the longer it continued.  Several of my friends were incredulous.  How could fasting get easier the longer it went on?  I felt, as Kafka put it, that I "alone knew ... how easy it was to fast." 

Among classic writers, by the way, Kafka was the most incisive in what he said about Big Government.  In The Metamorphosis, he wrote, "Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy."  Aptly put.

Was Kafka a conservative?  I believe he was.  His writing is filled with a defense of the individual and with fearful intimations of the rise of totalitarianism.  His novels and stories constitute a monumental plea for the freedom of the individual from authoritarianism of all kinds.  The Castle is the most compelling anti-authoritarian book of its time.  And yes, Kafka was a vegetarian.

Like Kafka, I don't fast for weight loss.  (Kafka, "possibly an anorexic," did not need to lose weight.)  Nor do I fast for ethical reasons.  Peter Singer may believe that turkeys have the same rights as humans, but I don't share that belief.  There is nothing particularly sinful about roasting a turkey or cooking a ham.  I just don't think meat and other animal products are healthy in my particular case.

For me, fasting is a time to surrender and simplify.  A time for rest and contemplation.  And what better time than during the holidays?

Lately, I've been re-reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, a book that means much more to me now than it did in my twenties.  And yes, Merton was a vegetarian and an advocate of fasting.  Merton was a natural conservative who wished to discover the "permanent things" and to discard what was ephemeral and distracting.  Like all conservatives, he was committed to the pursuit of truth, and he understood that truth pointed back to the inherited traditions of his civilization. As a Trappist monk, he devoted himself to the uninterrupted celebration of those traditions, including the celebration of Christ's birth.  That, as he describes it in The Seven Storey Mountain, is what led him to the monastic life of the Trappists to begin with.    

This brings us back to Christmas.  I'll be fasting during the holidays, in part because it seems appropriate as a counterbalance to the excess that always accompanies the season.  There was a time when Christmas was simpler.  It heralded the arrival of a fruitcake from my aunt in Michigan or a Swiss Colony box from one of dad's colleagues at work.  Now the only way to enjoy that simplicity is to make Christmas simple.  There are many ways to do that.  Fasting is one of them.

What I want for Christmas is a peaceful time of reflection and rest accompanied by fasting, but as a conservative, I believe in self-responsibility and individual choice.  I don't presume to influence others.  It doesn't work, anyway.  Tell someone else what to do, and he will do the opposite.  Ban pizza, and he'll be texting Papa John's in minutes.    

To be clear, I'm not fasting on Christmas Day.  That would be a bit much, and it would hurt the feelings of those who work to put together the Christmas dinner.  I'll save the fasting for before and after.

And I hope that this Christmas, for you and for me, will be blessed with joy, peace, and well-being.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).