This week most of the staff and audience of Carolina Journal will sit down with friends and family for a Thanksgiving feast — an enduring American tradition that celebrates all we have to be grateful for in this country and in this state.
But the truth is, contemporary American culture is not about feasting at rare holidays and then returning to a more moderate baseline of intake regarding food, drink, entertainment, shopping, and all the other good things in life. Excess is our lifestyle. Our daily life is a feast.
This is why, especially in cultures like our own where we actually have a choice, we should also include in our annual traditions some times of intentional deprivation — fasting. Fasting is not just a means of self-flagellation pursued by gluttons for punishment. It’s a means of fighting for freedom over our impulses, which can pull us every which way if we let them.
Those who originally set these seasonal traditions in place had a more balanced view than our modern customs. Yes, they established Mardi Gras and Easter festivities, but in between there was a period of Lent. Yes, there are magical Christmas traditions, but there was also established a period of fasting beforehand called Advent.
Americans have largely decided to embrace the former and discard the latter. And who can blame them? When I lived in the Gulf Coast, there were many more takers for the raucous Mardi Gras parades than the opportunity to remember they will one day “return to dust” on Ash Wednesday. And the Christmas season takes over a larger and larger part of the calendar, while Advent fades from popular observance (except for maybe setting up a calendar, often stuffed with chocolate).
Even Thanksgiving traditionally had a fasting counterpart, creatively called “Fast Day.” As the story from Puritan leader Cotton Mather went, the Pilgrims had a series of unsuccessful corn crops, so they set aside a day for fasting and prayer before planting. There was then sufficient rain to help their crops, and they later celebrated their abundant harvest with a feast of Thanksgiving to God.
Both the Fast Day (at planting time) and the Thanksgiving Day (at harvest time) were held for generations after in New England to commemorate this provision. But Fast Day didn’t quite take off outside of New England. And even in New England, it eventually faded, being finally removed from state calendars in the 1980s and 90s.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good feast or party — whether it’s Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas, acknowledging a major milestone, or just a spontaneous celebration of life. But without punctuating these feasts with the traditional accompanying fasts, they start to feel indulgent and lose their oomph.
Interestingly, even without official sanction, balance is spontaneously returning. People, feeling the effect of this excess, have begun to add traditions like Dry January, dopamine fasting, and meatless Mondays. The point of this feast-fast cycle is not just so the good times stand out against a backdrop of bad. The fasts also provide an exercise in self-restraint — sometimes called the virtue of temperance — so any indulgence remains a choice, not an impulse over which we lose control.
Those who give in to all their natural passions (drives towards eating, drinking, sex, fighting, etc) often tell themselves that if they really needed to forego something for a greater good, it wouldn’t be a problem. But these allowing these drives to generally have their way forms habits, even addictions, slowly and imperceptibly, until we find it’s not as easy to choose against them as we might have assumed.
So, it’s not just exterior forces like oppressive regimes that can rob us of liberty, but those inside us too. Having enough self-control to choose what prudence dictates in any moment is true freedom. A person who reaches this state of freedom can see a number of goods and choose to prioritize them by exercising their reason and conscience, rather than just being driven by whichever impulse is strongest at that moment. But this virtue comes through exercise and is built over time through practices like fasting.
The founders, and other Enlightenment and Christian thinkers from whose wisdom we built our Constitution, were clear that this interior freedom was a prerequisite to maintaining a nation based on exterior freedom. Those who are slaves to their own impulses will abuse their liberty and are also easily manipulated by tyrants.
To use the same Edmund Burke quote I did in another recent piece (because it fits even better here), “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites… Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
So let’s feast well this holiday season. But then let’s remember to add practices like fasting (whether from social media, food, video games, or anything else that is particularly enticing to us) that can build the self-control needed to maintain all those liberties we are so thankful for.