Asceticism and Our Day

It’s interesting to see how different generations of people are associated with blanket statement identifiers. Baby Boomers are associated with a proclivity for debt, large homes, and material goods.

Millennials are associated with a shunning of material goods for experiences, and often portrayed in media as a group that would rather rent than own.

These are very broad generalizations yet we read of these depictions in news articles and in books. From my perspective there seems to be an ebb and flow throughout human history of a seeking for wealth and gain, to a reversion of a more ascetic life both temporally and spiritually.

Excess and all of the things that come with it, pride, ego, selfishness, seem to be the downfall of great civilizations. These same empires eventually (usually by circumstances out of their control), “come to their senses” and revert towards moderation and simplicity.

The excesses of the 1920s in American society brought the economic harshness of the Great Depression. The excesses of uncontrolled real estate speculation fueled the 2008 financial crisis and brought about the austerity that followed. The Corona pandemic that we are living in now might be something similar that quells the last 11 years of unfettered economic growth in America and in many places around the world.

What do all of these periods of excess and restraint teach us? For one thing, they teach us that it is foolish to ride the roller coaster. There is a better way. That better way is a path of moderation and restraint. It is a false assumption that self-discipline and self-control lead to unhappiness. This is something I have believed and still sometimes fight against in certain aspects of my life.

The reality is that we should strive to not be too high of ourselves and also avoid being too low. We want to look for what Buddha referred to as the middle path. In Mormon scripture there is a verse that refers to being “temperate in all things.” This middle path to many in today’s world will look like an extreme form of asceticism, but is mild compared to the days of our ancient fathers.

If you don’t consume alcohol, avoid premarital sex, or eat a vegan diet, today you would be considered by many to be out of the norm. At the very least you would be considered a very small minority. Because of this there has been a shift to what it means to be ascetic.

The ancient Desert Fathers of early Christianity took ascetic living to an extreme. There are examples like Simeon Stylites, a Christian monk, who stayed on the top of a pillar for a period totaling 47 years. Although I wouldn’t personally take that route, that was his way. That was his quest for truth.

The point is that in asceticism what is excess to one might be moderation to another, and vice versa. Everyone must find their middle way. Not too high, not too low. No one can tell you what that looks like for you. It is for you to discover.

We should learn from the excesses of previous and current generations, always studying and always evolving. We must seek and find our own truth and our own middle path.

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