Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stop Resisting Temptation

     How's Lent going for you? Did you give something up? (If you don't do Lent, think about your last New Year's resolutions, and if you don't do those, either, the last time you resolved to change a habit.) How hard is it? How challenging of a resolution did you choose? How are you doing at resisting temptation

    We live in an era when self-discipline is out of fashion. That's been going on long enough, however, that many of us are coming to realize that instant gratification is not actually all that satisfying. It distracts us from our bigger goals and ideals, and keeps us stuck in a smaller, more futile life. But how to learn to choose long-term satisfaction over all the immediate impulses we're constantly bombarded with? 

    Of course, for me as a person with ADHD, I have to work a lot harder than the neurotypicals to figure this stuff out. Impulse control is one of the most fundamental deficits in ADHD. Even so, though, I think it's also a cultural trend over the last half-century or so, and probably pretty broadly relatable. 

    So here's what I want to say about Lent and asceticism today: stop resisting temptation. Temptation is stronger than you are. In hand-to-hand combat, it will defeat you. You might be able to hold it down for a little while, with white knuckles and gritted teeth. You might make it through the forty days of Lent, or a few weeks after New Year's. But it will exhaust you, and in your exhaustion you will lose something else, in some other area of your life. 

    It's as if we think that the end goal of asceticism is to defeat temptation, to stop being tempted. No. It's not. We will always be tempted. The answer is not to fight against temptation. The answer is to pay attention to it, to explore it, to examine it and what is under and behind it, what's driving it. The answer is to take temptation by the hand and ask it what it's trying to tell me I need right now. Sometimes, it reveals real needs I should find a way to address. Maybe I need a break to move around, or a hug, or to remind myself again of why my long-term goal is worth more to me. Maybe I need to make a decision, or to remind myself that vulnerability is the necessary cost of taking risks, or to "honor the Sabbath" by not letting play-time be squeezed out of my schedule. 

    Sometimes temptation has valuable things to tell me, and sometimes it lies. A whole lot of the time, it just makes things up, because what my lizard brain (aka amygdala) wants is really not all that rational. The part of my brain (or my whole nervous system, my whole body) that wants instant gratification literally has no concept of the future, the goal I'm sabotaging by choosing this paltry shot of dopamine. Nor of the past, the 999 times I already did this thing and lived to regret it. 

    Temptation isn't the problem. Resisting it is futile, it will always be with me. My intention, rather, is to learn to tolerate temptation, with generosity and sureness of purpose, without letting my actions be driven by it. Evagrius Ponticus, the guy who wrote these deep treatises back in the 4th century translating Greek Stoic philosophy into Christian monastic terms, was all about this approach. So are monks and ascetics in every tradition. So are psychologists and mindset coaches.

    Don't fight temptation, and don't indulge it, either. Make friends with it. Hold its hand, and pat it on the head, and say "I see you, temptation, and I know you're not going anywhere, so just settle down next to me while I do the thing I had planned to do anyway." I can tolerate temptation, and not act on it. And sometimes, I will fail, and then I will confess (to my spiritual director, or a friend, or my coach or therapist, or anyone wise enough to receive it well).

    And then, if I neither indulge it nor resist it, but just observe it and explore what's under and behind it, gradually temptation gets weaker, gradually it gets easier to tolerate the discomfort, gradually it takes less energy to ride it out and stand firm in my higher or longer-term intentions.

    Happy and blessed Lent to you all. Every day, we begin again.

~~~ PEACE ~~~

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