Being a bachelor is nice. Comfortable. Fun. Flexible and freeing. Satisfying.
It’s basically everything adolescent Isaac dreamed of. I can eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want. I no longer live under my parents’ watchful eye, and I can stay out all night if I want to. Life’s good.
But even when I’m truly *winning* as a bachelor — and perhaps even especially then — I realize there’s got to be more to life.
Why? I know, deep down, that it’s better to do good for others and live for something bigger than myself. I’m also learning that the more I’m obsessed with making a better life for myself — of embracing what you might call the worldly bachelor virtues — the easier it is to forget to help others to do the same.
It’s enough to make me think that if I want to be the best man that I can be, I need to actively work against this bachelor mentality.
So what can be done to treat this self-centered way of life — for the bachelor or anyone? I’ve come to value a big ol’ (and frequent) dose of self-denial.
What is self-denial?
What do I mean by self-denial? That would be the intentional decision to deny myself something I would typically enjoy. All of those things I mentioned earlier that would be a dream-scenario for adolescent me are great examples — doing what I want, when I want, and how I want. I’ve been playing around with intentionally resisting and even acting against those desires and tendencies.
That might sound kind of radical, but we all already do this periodically, intentionally or even instinctually, when we save money for an upcoming vacation or take on a diet and exercise routine for weight-loss purposes.
But what really gets at the heart of self-denial is when you do it without an obvious, tangible goal or natural consequence in mind, like more money to spend or the perfect beach bod to show off. Self-denial for the sake of self-denial aims beyond the carrot of your run-of-the-mill delayed gratification. Sacrificing for something obviously greater is good, but I’m interested in what’s excellent.
There have been a few times in my life when I decided to not drink alcohol for a while. The first time was because I had let somebody down in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t enjoye a couple of cocktails too many. I decided to go dry for two weeks to a) show her that I was sorry, and b) teach myself some self-control.
I’ll never forget how difficult it was to not drink even for two weeks. Of course, it wasn’t 14 days of constant torture, but just a few moments here and there that proved to be particularly difficult. Like the time we went to a bar to watch some friends play some music. Everybody in my group was drinking, as usual, and it seemed like everybody else at the bar was, too.
It wasn’t like everybody was having fun and I was miserable. It was just…weird. What will I tell people? What do I do if someone hands me a drink? What do I do with my hands? There was even a point when I had wondered if I would have been better off elsewhere.
Then the thought occurred to me: What if I just ordered a drink? It’s not that big of a deal, right? Who am I trying to impress? But no, I had committed to this, and I was determined to see it through.
So I ordered a glass of tonic water with a lime (which actually just kind of tastes like when you order a gin and tonic and the bartender skimps on the gin). I ended up ordering a couple more throughout the night and I’m not sure the bartender charged me for any of them (don’t worry, I tipped). I ended up having a great time — I didn’t need booze to do it, and I think I really did grow in self-mastery.
Whenever I’ve given up drinking for weeks at a time, I’ve learned something about myself. I realized how much of my life revolves around drinking, for example. It turns out that abstaining from alcohol meant I didn’t spend nearly as much money — I saved on the actual booze as well as the accompanying food and Ubers and whatnot. I also didn’t stay up as late and didn’t need recovery time in the morning.
Sometimes, I found myself with nothing to do on the weekends, which sometimes sucked and sometimes didn’t. Even the conversations in which I participated tended to hold more substance instead of inevitably devolving into superficialities. I didn’t go on as many dates, and the ones I did go on were, yes, more awkward — yet those encounters were more real and more challenging, in a good way. And, of course, last but not least: I lost some weight!
Giving up drinking periodically like this really opened my eyes to the habits that I had formed without really even realizing it — and mostly without intending it. I didn’t give up drinking to dramatically change my life — I did it to just reset and refocus a bit, and then resume drinking after those few weeks were over. But throughout the process of self-denial, I was surprised by the difference it made, even on a day-to-day basis. I became more self-aware and thus able to be more intentional with the way I live my life.
I’ve discovered that self-denial is a key to taking on intentional mindfulness, which helps us take control of our lives. When I was abstaining, every time I wanted a drink or made plans that might include alcohol, I felt a mini-shock to the decision-making process I had grown accustomed to. “Oops, can’t do that,” I’d think. “Well, now what?” And that would naturally lead to thoughtfulness.
Fasting from food does the same thing, only in a more immediate sense because we need food every day. And when I don’t feed myself regularly, my body literally rebels against me.
But then a funny thing happens: my body adjusts, and so do my desires. Sure, there are ups and downs to fasting, and I’m definitely tested whenever I smell something delicious, but I’m always surprised how some intentionality allows me to master my cravings in short order.
Another funny thing happens: I become more aware of spiritual things. I find that I become naturally more prayerful and open to God when I fast — it’s as though removing one source of input clears space for me to perceive things more deeply. I’m not surprised that fasting has such a prominent place in Christian tradition.
Fasting doesn’t automatically bring me closer to God, but it can be a powerful tool to get myself out of my own head, to notice the needs of people around me (especially those who go without food involuntarily), to be thankful, and devote myself more diligently to cultivating my relationship with God.
Using self-denial during Lent
I’m on record saying that I used to hate Lent. And yeah, there’s still something about it that’s a buzzkill. But I’ve really begun to dive head-first into all of the Lent disciplines, from fasting to giving up meat on Fridays to devoting myself to self-denial and prayer. When everything in me just wants to sleep, I try to pray every night before I go to bed. (It helps to realize that I’ll commonly spend 45 minutes scrolling through Twitter, so I can just use that time and attention when I’m tired.)
Which leads me to one last mode of self-denial that’s absolutely undefeated when it comes to irritating my bachelor-sized ego: almsgiving — aka, giving your money away. One of the biggest temptations as a competitive, hedonistic bachelor like myself is to try to make as much money as possible. And nothing serves to help re-calibrate that mentality than having to hand over your hard-earned money and get nothing in return.
Lent is a particularly good time to give your money away, even if it’s just a small sum to start. It’s a practice that connects us in real ways to those who are poor and lack what they need to flourish. It’s easy to think that I’m a loving person, but most of the ways we love usually don’t cost that much. Giving money to organizations serving those on the margins helps remind me that real love means making a difference in the lives of those who are suffering.
Practice living for others
I’ve gotten to a point in my adult life now where I’m more financially stable and living more comfortably than ever before — thanks be to God. As I’ve settled into adult life, I’ve also been growing increasingly more aware of the fact that, as the kids say, this ain’t it.
As much as adolescent Isaac dreamed about a certain level of freedom and license, I’ve also always wanted to do more than just enjoy myself — I want to get married and have children. And while I’m not yet doing that, I have all sorts of opportunities to prepare myself for such a vocation and even to practice living for others right now, even if they don’t share my last name.
The 40 days of Lent are 40 opportunities to live for others and to deepen our hearts. I invite you to join me in the traditional practices of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from meat of Fridays, and periodic almsgiving to the poor. I’ll also be giving up drinking again, so keep me accountable if you see me out and about.
But you don’t necessarily need Lent to practice self-denial. If you live or work with other people, consider attending to their temperature preferences, restaurant choices, or their hopes for what to do over the weekend. If you drive on the same roadways with others, consider letting other cars go ahead of you or resisting an angry horn. And most importantly, invite God to show you how you can better deny yourself so that you can deepen your desires to better serve others and respond to His love.