This year, Valentine’s Day shared the stage with Ash Wednesday, an annual Christian holiday that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days before Easter. In honor of the 40 days that Jesus was believed to have spent fasting in the desert, many Catholics give something up — most traditionally meat and meat products. While this practice isn’t embedded into the Syrian Catholic traditions of my family in India, the influence of the Roman Catholic church I attended growing up made it an annual practice for us. Every year, my family commits to giving up anything from sugar to gossip to Candy Crush. 

Catholics are infamous for their fixation on self-denial, but it’s really a cornerstone of all major religions. As Molly Worthen, associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote in the New York Times this week, “It is an almost universal practice across time and culture; our species has an impulse to deny bodily desires in order to connect with something transcendent.” 

That “something transcendent” doesn’t necessarily have to be God. Writer Ismatu Gwendolyn wrote in their essay “Notes on Fasting: 40 Days for Palestine” that fasting serves as “a physical reminder to remember the weight of war.” In this way, fasting is a catharsis, a means of  “stretching my mind and my attention”. Self-denial is a discipline that allows people to transcend into a new level of understanding, a way to expand their ability to empathize with those who have wildly different experiences because it unites people on their most basic desires. 

I’m often inclined to think that proponents of discipline are based in a capitalist desire to maximize productivity. But Gwendolyn’s essay demonstrates a completely different perspective: self-denial isn’t a way to make yourself more profitable. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — it’s a way to force yourself to move slowly, focus on what really matters and connect with people on the most basic qualities of being human. 

For many people, access to basic needs isn’t guaranteed, so self-denial isn’t an option — it’s the baseline. And I’m not saying that the imperfection of the human condition is an excuse for people to be denied their basic needs. Rather, I’m saying that for people in a situation where they have ample resources, a controlled and intentional period of self-denial can be instrumental in increasing their ability to empathize with those who are not in equally fortunate circumstances. 

But beyond increasing empathy, self-denial is a necessary component of a rich life. In high school, my senior year English class read “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, and it gave me a completely new perspective on self-denial of instant gratification. It’s a dystopian novel centered around a world where people seek pleasure above all else. With the loss of all patience and discipline, people lose interest in pursuing love, art or knowledge. The book puts the virtue of self-denial quite simply: “[f]eeling lurks in that interval of time between desire and its consummation”. So in a universe where that interval is snuffed out at any opportunity, there’s no feeling at all, good or bad. 

I’m usually too much of an optimist to say the world is turning into the likes of a dystopian novel, but the increasing popularity of short-form media makes me feel like as I get older, the world begins to feel more and more like Huxley’s vision of the future. And when I read the book in senior year, I thought it was almost inevitable that people would give up their ability to think critically in favor of easy comforts and instant gratification. 

But in times like Lent, I’m reminded of an equally human desire to deny themselves pleasure in order to connect to something greater. Even in “Brave New World”, there are dissenters who seek a rich life over a comfortable one: John “the savage” emphatically claims — in one of my favorite literary exchanges of all time — “I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin … I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Sneha Cheenath forgot it was Ash Wednesday until her roommate saw it on Twitter.

A version of this article appeared on p. 14 of the Feb 22, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.