Everybody knows that denial is a bad thing. When someone says you are “in denial” he is saying that you are failing to face the truth.
So our culture would have you believe. Therapy culture began with Freud’s critique of repression, but nowadays the terms have changed and repression has morphed into denial.
Sometimes it seems that everyone agrees that denial is bad.
If it’s bad to deny the truth, just think of how bad it is to deny the truth of your own being.
According to the therapy culture the truth of your being is, alternately, your impulses, your instincts, your passions, appetites or your desires.
Denying your truth means not allowing your impulsive, instinctual truth to express itself. According to the gospel of expression denial does violence to our soul. The therapy culture tells us that it will make you sick. If it doesn’t give you a neurosis it will surely give you cancer.
Of course, giving your appetites free reign can make you a slave to your appetites. Letting it all hang out and being open and honest about your sexuality might make you into Anthony Weiner.
Until recently we were all told that denial was the eighth deadly sin. We were counseled to avoid it at all costs, lest it harm our mortal souls.
Upon such a foundation the therapy culture was built. If you believe that denial is a bad thing you inhabit that culture.
Recently, TimeMagazine cast a disparaging vote against the culture of expression. It found a virtue in self-denial.
Thanks to some recent research, it has discovered that, in moderation, it is good to exercise self-denial and self-control. It builds character.
It pointed out that denying ourselves a pleasure, whether it be for Lent or Yom Kippur, is good for both your soul and your character.
Of course, the self-denial that occurs in Lent or Yom Kippur is a form of penance. It is a sacrifice that involves self-punishment. It’s a way of overcoming guilt.
But, there’s more to self-denial than penance. When you swear off certain foods or pleasures you are also exercising self-control. By exercising self-control you are tempering the expression of your appetites. And you are showing yourself that they do not and will not dictate your behavior.
Self-denial is therefore a form of temperance. It involves the exercise of reason and of willpower. Moreover, it builds character.
I’m not sure why we needed scientific proof of the fact, but character works like a muscle. You do not strengthen it by learning what it is. You do not build it by trying to find out why you don’t have any. You strengthen and build character by using it.
Better yet, if you exercise self-control in one area of your life you are far more likely to exercise it in another. Once you learn to follow one set of rules you are more likely to be able to follow other rules.
If you learn to follow rules and participate in ritualized self-denial—during Lent or Yom Kippur—you will be more able to do so on the job or in your relationships.
Time Magazine reports:
Indeed, the best way to think of willpower is not as some shapeless behavioral trait but as a sort of psychic muscle, one that can atrophy or grow stronger depending on how it’s used. What’s more, neurologists and behavioral psychologists generally think of willpower as what’s known as “domain general,” which means that the more you practice it to control one behavior — say, overeating — the more it starts to apply itself to other parts of your life like exercising more or drinking less.
If the Time article is an indicator it appears that the era of self-indulgence is fading away. Not a minute too soon, I would say.
Self-control is not entirely the same thing as self-denial and it need not explicitly target appetite. It might also target the sin of sloth.
Take yoga or Tao Chi or pilates or another form of exercise that requires strict self-control Beyond their mental and physical benefits these exercise regimens teach self-control. They place less emphasis on self-denial.
One might normally apply the same principle to children in a classroom. Sitting at a desk receiving instruction requires a high level of self-control and some self-denial.
Many forms of self-denial involve ritualized group activity. If you are not in it alone it is not just a struggle between you and your appetite.
If it is just you against your appetite the chances are good that you are going to lose. If you participate in a ritualized form of self-denial and self-control you are acting in harmony with other members of your group. Feeling like you belong will give you the strength to succeed.
If you do what the group requires, you will be affirming your membership in it. Actively affirming your identity as a social being confers positive psychological benefits and builds character.
Religion does involve belief, but there is more to it than what you believe.
True, it would be difficult to be a good Christian if you did not believe that Christ was the Son of God. And you would have a difficult time worshipping God if you did not believe that God existed.
A religion is a social tie. It involves membership in a congregation. Belonging to it obliges you to perform certain rituals. Religion is a primary moral agent that shows you how to temper the expression of your instincts, emotions, appetites, and desires.
As we think about religiously directed self-denial, we cannot help but notice that self-denial is another term for abstinence.
We have been told, over and over again, that abstinence education is bad for children. Serious researchers explain to us that teenagers do not need to be taught abstinence because it never works.
Teenagers will always have sex, so why not teach them how to have it the right way.
In far too many schools today sexual abstinence is considered a bad thing. It is considered a form of denial.
Usually, the risks of early sexual activity are overlooked in favor of full and free expression of sexual appetite. This is presented as a transcendent virtue, one that is so important that it supersedes all considerations of moral, physical, or emotional hygiene.
Religions do not just foster rituals that involve self-denial. They also regulate sexual behavior.
Religions do not regulate it out of existence, but they do have rules about which sex acts are desirable and which are undesirable, when and with whom such sex acts should be performed. Some religions also require that the priesthood remain abstinent.
You may or may not like the strictures that religion puts on sexual behavior. Clearly, the specifics are always evolving. Rather than debate one or the other rules we should understand that these rules involve tempering your sexual appetite, learning how to control it, and learning how not to be its slave.
Ask yourself whether it is more important for children to learn how to temper their burgeoning sexual desires or to learn how to express them?
Tempering sexual impulses does not preclude some forms of expression. But, the gospel of full expression does preclude abstinence.
That is how I would define one aspect of the moral conflict that is currently bedeviling our culture.