For people of a certain age, you’re supposed to sing that title to the tune of the John Lennon song that uses the word “heaven” instead of “email.” The other day our wireless hub here at home went out, and it took a day or two before we could get a new one going. In the interim, my wife, who was initially distressed at her lack of connectivity, remarked that actually it was a refreshing thing to go without email or looking at the Internet for a couple of days.
Without meaning to, we accidentally endured what you might call a period of fasting from email and the Internet. And we found that it wasn’t all that bad.
Mention the word “fasting” to most people, and you may conjure up images of scrawny half-crazed religious fanatics who lived a long time ago. Or if you have had personal experience of fasting, it was probably just an unpleasant prelude to a medical procedure. The whole spirit of the age militates against voluntarily refraining from consumption of one kind or another, which is all fasting is. We are told without letup that we live in a consumer-driven economy, and so it’s positively unpatriotic to consume less if you can consume more.
Well, if it’s so economically harmful, why do people do it at all? What is the point of fasting?
Theologians have an umbrella word for fasting, abstinence, and other kinds of things discussed in magazines with titles like A Simple Life, The Simple Things, or just Real Simple. The word is “simplicity.” Simplicity is a type of spiritual discipline, meaning that it’s a habit you can practice that will make you a better person if you get better at it. Or at least, it stands a chance of doing that. What is certain, is that if you don’t practice the discipline, it won’t do you any good.
You don’t have to be a theologian, or even a religious believer, to benefit from spiritual disciplines, especially fasting. The reason is that human nature is meant to be a certain way, and habits that make us more the way we were intended to be have benefits, whether or not you believe there is a God that designed you to be a certain way or not. The habit or discipline of fasting helps the rational part of you gain mastery over the less-rational part.
All of us have what some sociologists refer to as a “lizard brain”: a primitive part of the brain that we appear to share with lower animals such as lizards. Lizards are good at what they do. We have bright-green anoles around our yard here, and they move in a way that I have to admit is quite human: slowly, guardedly creeping up on a bug until it’s within reach, and then snatching it before the bug can figure out what hit him. But lizards are slaves to their instincts. When they’re hungry, they hunt. When it’s breeding time, they breed. You don’t see lizards wearing little hooded robes and rope belts around their waists refraining from eating juicy bugs right in front of them. At least, not outside Geico commercials.
But humans can voluntarily refrain from consuming or doing something that is otherwise good, helpful, or even necessary, simply to practice what you might call ordinate self-control.
Take email as an example of such a thing. Some small fraction of what most people with email accounts receive is worth reading: it’s from a person you know, or your boss, or your long-lost Cousin Max, and you get a benefit or pleasure from reading it. But the temptation of email, at least for me, is to jump on the computer every time that little bing goes off and see what the newest email is. If I give in to the temptation to monitor my email more or less constantly like that, I will get little if anything else done.
An occasional fast from email can teach me several things. One is, I won’t die or lose my job (not necessarily, depending on the job) if I don’t read my email for a couple of days, with the proper preliminary precautions and notices to others. Another lesson is, life without email is not only possible, but has advantages too. I can spend hours reading a book, for instance (remember books?—the paper kind, I mean).
Or I can take a walk in a park and observe, really observe, nature and its manifold wonders—not just treat it as some green-screen CGI background to the movie of my life.
Much as engineers like rules, there are no universal rules for fasting (aside from rules promulgated by various religions for their members, that is). If you want to try it, think of a bad habit you have that you’d really like to be able to control, a habit that involves something necessary in its proper amount, but something that you find yourself going overboard with.
I’m not trying to start a twelve-step program here, I’m simply suggesting how you can pick a feature of your life that you might consider fasting from. Then decide on some period of time in which you could afford to stop or reduce that activity, and try to stick to it. If it’s something you really think you can do without altogether, go slow at first. Trying too much too soon is a classic mistake of novice fasters. If you can do without the thing for an hour, or a day, do it, don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail, but if you succeed, try two hours or two days next time.
Fasting is currently a countercultural thing, and except for the magazines I’ve mentioned and some books I will refer to below, you won’t find much support from other people if you decide to fast. They may secretly feel jealous or threatened by your abstaining from what they view as a normal, healthy part of life. They may even tell you you’re foolish or going to cause yourself trouble, and you should at least listen to them.
But if you’ve made up your mind to try a fast, go ahead and try it. The worst that can happen is that you find out the thing has got a tighter grip on you than you thought—and that’s worth knowing too.
Sources: I have found very helpful a couple of books that relate to fasting, simplicity, and related spiritual disciplines. Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (HarperCollins, 1998) is a classic that treats many types of spiritual disciplines, including fasting, in an organized way that respects a wide variety of religious traditions. For a more personal take on how a very busy wife, mother and author up the road here in Austin implemented seven types of simple living in her household, I recommend Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (B&H Publishers, 2012).
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.