A Prayer for Less

Pleasure is vast, cheap, kaleidoscopic. Lent is the time to forgo it—and seek peace.

Picture showing many birds flying as the sun sets behind a body of water
Trent Parke / Magnum

When I converted to Catholicism as an adult, I quickly became acquainted with Lent, the contemplative and solemn liturgical season of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving preceding Holy Week. It had been mentioned in my southern, Protestant upbringing, but was as insignificant a feature of the late winter as ice and snow: Where I grew up, the post-Christmas chill of the new year glided into the mid-60s before February was out, which meant that the crocuses and jonquils and buttercups crowned the grass long before Easter arrived. In New England, where I live now, winter is a long, gray, wandering season, fitting for Lent.

And so, a native to neither lingering winters nor the sojourn of Lent, I found myself enshrouded in a mild depression as the cold, wind-streaked days stretched on this year, and the time for fasting approached without me having so much as a hint of what I might give up. It isn’t obligatory to sacrifice some signal pleasure for Lent, only traditional—a gentle reassurance that made me more melancholy. But it wasn’t the absence of pressure that was making it so difficult to determine what I could meaningfully give up; it was rather the ubiquity of pleasure.

To put a finer point on it, I began to suspect that I couldn’t find a reason to give up one thing over another because I didn’t especially want anything more than anything else. Not because I lead a particularly bacchanalian life, either: I am a creature of plain and reliable comforts, of good bread and salty butter, milk chocolate and Coke Zero, fluid pens and blank paper, music in the morning and TV at night, books, balms, candles. I scroll judiciously through one app or another and feel remotely entertained by all of them but preoccupied by none of them. It occurred to me that I could give up any one of those things and experience almost no significant shift in quality of life, because all the others are that good, and would remain. But first I would have to elect one above the others for self-denial, and I couldn’t, because all of them were that good, and only just.

This may be a useful summary of the modern condition: Surrounded by easy pleasure, yet bedeviled by the sheer volume of it, we must all be as productive as possible so we can try to choose the best of what we can barely navigate. Part of the trouble is psychological. As Barry Schwartz observed in his 2004 book, The Paradox of Choice, endless options can be paralytic, or otherwise drive the brain to nonsensical methods of selection. Put differently, ubiquitous and constant opportunities for pleasure can become a distraction from enjoyment, because the limitless possibilities place an enormous burden on one to sort and choose. But another part of it is philosophical: What to do with oneself in an era when an abundance of pleasure rather than a scarcity of it is a chief moral problem?

That isn’t to say that poverty is neither a practical nor moral concern in our time; it remains both—a political failure in a country as rich as the United States. But it is also the case that even amid poverty, opportunities for pleasurable consumption remain numerous and accessible in America, a kind of cultural mainstay. In 2021, the Pew Research Center found, for example, that 85 percent of Americans own a smartphone, a percentage that soars to approximately 95 percent in the 18-to-49 age bracket. From thence issue a number of ready joys: music and entertainment apps; social media, so synonymous with cheap satisfaction that it’s frequently described as a kind of dopamine drip; games, messaging, and delivery apps, a carousel of swipe-through windows for America’s finest fast-food establishments and convenience stores, where an Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Sour Patch Kids manifest in your future with the ease of a tap. Even more awaits on the internet itself, the great underlying logistical and cultural fact of our time, the place where you learn what you should desire, locate it, and consume it.

Vast, cheap, kaleidoscopic pleasure has complex consequences. Almost everything that fits the bill—candy, social media, porn—has a tendency to encourage in some users what we might think of as self-regulatory issues, or trouble with keeping occasional indulgence from developing into full-blown problematic use. Certain pleasures become hard to replicate over time, especially if one can attempt to replicate them in various iterations in short periods. It is perhaps because of so much pleasure that the language of addiction has never been so readily deployed: sugar addiction, social-media addiction, porn addiction. Even if you indulge only moderately in a range of mostly harmless delights, you may still find yourself, like me, a little bereft by the experience.

Perhaps Lent as a season presents this moral universe with an occasion for broadly underdoing it, much like the Jewish Sabbath introduces into the week an occasion for rest against the demands of the very same contemporary culture. None of this warrants a rejection of modernity, nor of our modern selves: The point isn’t to hate oneself or one’s world, but rather to relinquish what brings pleasure in favor of what brings peace. (Sneering at oneself and one’s world is a kind of pleasure in most cases, anyhow.) The purpose of Lenten fasting and mortification—a taboo-sounding word meaning the restraint of desire—isn’t total self-abnegation, nor is it to rebuff, with a self-satisfied kind of piety, modernity. The work of Lenten fasting is more delicate than that. The point isn’t to induce pain, but to help distinguish luxuries—even God-given pleasures—from necessities, sources of enjoyment from sources of nourishment. It’s an inward journey in a superficial era, a season for plainness and restraint in a time of overwhelming pleasure and excess.

And so I resolved to broadly underdo it, to devote myself less to pleasure altogether, though I had my misgivings about never having chosen anything specific to give up. I told myself I would spend more of my time for others and that I would forgo what indulgences I could. I would be at home among the shyly lengthening days still crested with frost, and I would not begrudge the hard ground or wan light. I would live well in my time, or so I aspired; I would be at peace.

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