I had a great conversation with a new friend on a train ride today. I don’t think he’s religious at all, but we got to talking about Lent, and asceticism. He said that it’s no surprise to him that American Christians don’t fast, by and large.
“It goes against everything our consumer culture stands for,” he said. “Everything about the way we live is set up to tell you constantly that you should have more, more, more all the time. What is the purpose of advertising? To tell you a) that there’s something wrong with you, and b) by acquiring this product or experience, you can be whole again. But here’s religion telling you, ‘Wait, that’s a lie, you don’t need all that, and here’s a practice — fasting and asceticism — that can show you how things really are. No wonder nobody does it anymore. It’s too countercultural.”
“It’s like fasting reboots your mind and your body,” I responded. “It reminds you what you’ve forgotten.”
“Funny you used the term ‘reboot,'” he said. “Even machines need to rest, to step back from what they do. Computers have to be off for a while to sort themselves out. And look at agriculture. You ever see that movie ‘Food, Inc.’? Great documentary. They show how the old practice of leaving a field fallow for a season helped rebuild the nutrients in the soil. But we don’t do that. We basically strip mine a field for all its worth, never letting it rest. And we’re destroying all the life in it. There’s something inherent in nature that demands rest, and stepping back from the normal patterns of consumption. But we can’t seem to learn that, can we?”
I went on to tell him that this reminded me of how much pleasure I used to derive from traveling to faraway places, and eating things I couldn’t get back home, and bringing home special treats. After a while, I began to notice that experiencing faraway places wasn’t nearly as different from life at home as it had been. We all have the same chain stores, and everything looks alike. And as for international travel, if you live in a big city, you can get pretty much anything here than you could get in many foreign capitals.
“A few weeks back, I was at a Belgian bar in Center City,” I told my traveling companion, “and I saw on the menu beer from a tiny monastery on the Dutch-Belgian border. I visited there when I was 17, and tasted their beer. And now, about 25 years later, I’m sitting in a bar in Philadelphia looking at their beer on the menu. I think this is really exciting — but it also makes me kind of sad.”
“In the future,” he said, “there will be a premium price on things you can only get at one place. People who refuse to export goods, and who only sell them to people who come to the source, will be able to charge really high prices for them. People are going to be desperate for originality, but the only way to get it will be through travel.”