Columnist for Friday, 3/16 - Cindy

Hell is Other People.

I have come up with two new rules for ascetic month, should I choose to go through this experience again in the future.

The first rule is that you do not talk about ascetic month.

The second rule is that you DO NOT TALK about ascetic month.

Don't tell anyone you're planning on it, don't tell anyone while you're doing it. If you like, you can tell people about it after the fact, but during is straight out. No wine tonight, thanks, you're driving. You'd love a piece of cheesecake, but you already pigged out on brownies at work and really shouldn't. If you're giving up little white lies, learn the art of silence.

The act of self-denial is in essence a personal thing. It's something you do for yourself, for self-improvement or mental discipline. I suppose if you're on a hunger strike to promote a political cause or acting as a spiritual leader it has a social element, but when you're just doing it for yourself, I highly recommend shutting up about it.

Other People, you see, just think it's fun to tease you about anything you're not allowed to have. It's the basic grade school urge of the one kid with the cookie to wave it in front of the kid who doesn't have one and say "oooh! I've got a cook-ie... It tastes sooo good..." My brother and I would actually compete to see who could eat dessert slowest, so we could lord our last bites over each other. Until the day I saved my whole piece of cake for later and Dad made me share it. But I digress.

Public self-denial makes you an entertaining oddity. People vaguely want to know why you're doing it, and sort of care whether you're getting anything out of it, but mostly they want to know what you're not allowed to do, and how badly you want to do it. I got a lot of "mmm... coffee!" over the first couple days -- until I lost my craving for caffeine, after which the teasing stopped. (I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that humans don't really grow up, they just get taller.)

While we're at this, let me count the parties I was invited to between January and February. Zero. I did the math. Twice! Now, of course, we're a week and a half into March and I've already been invited to three parties. One get-drunk-and-dance party, one birthday party with margaritas and chocolate cake, and this evening I'll be going to a nice wine and cheese affair being held by some friends who order my favorite Pinot Noir by the case. Next weekend isn't really planned out yet, but I'm betting there's a drunken orgy in the works, probably involving Bavarian chocolate eclairs. April, of course, will be the month where all my friends decide to nurse their hangovers and start living clean.

There's also the rather large question of what it means to be "ascetic". No matter what rules you set for yourself, there are always more stringent rules out there that someone is following, and you're just a poseur. Haven't you gone totally vegan? They pretty much torture dairy cows, you know, and the human body was not designed to digest cow's milk. You're cutting out refined sugar? You know there's sugar in that teriyaki tofu marinade, right? Dude, you could make it with brown rice syrup - it's not so bad once you get used to the taste. Only twenty minutes a day meditating? You'll never align your chakras at that rate! What? You're not cutting out sex? Why, that's the cornerstone of monastic existence! How about beating off? Weak, dude. Totally, totally weak.

If you're suffering, people want to revel in it vicariously. If you've broken any promises to yourself, they want to belittle you. They want to postulate what asceticism means to them, and your very presence in their midst means that you're some kind of wuss who can't handle wearing a hair shirt, fasting alone in a stone cell while hitting yourself in the face with a rusty hammer.

They wouldn't try to deny themselves so, but if they did there aren't any rules they couldn't follow.


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