As a twenty-two year old, I decided to fast on nothing but water for a long period of time (17 days, as it turned out). This is not something I am recommending, but doing this was very valuable for me. It taught me a number of things I don’t think I would have discovered for a long time if I hadn’t been willing to restrain my urge to eat and “see what happened.”
One thing that happened was I gained a much better sense of the power of my own will to overcome cravings I had when my body made demands I purposely decided not to fulfill. That was pretty interesting. Even more compelling, however, was the change in my consciousness and energy that resulted during this fast. This change took me to a new appreciation of the nuances of awareness accessible through sensible restraint, nuances that demonstated how restraint can 1) Foster a firmer sense of identity (I felt I now had more control over my eating, and thus over other aspects of my life) 2) Generate new perspectives on what matters and what doesn’t (Seeing that there were layers to the signals my body was giving me and that not automatically satisfying my hunger could lead to a type of clear-headedness I wouldn’t otherwise access), and 3) Rearrange relationships (in this case, internally: between my mind and my body) in ways that deepened my understanding of both sides of the equation. I ended my fast knowing much more about the limits and needs of both my body and mind than I had had before I undertook this experiment.
What I hadn’t learned fully comprehended about restraint from this experience was how powerfully restraint can affect relationships between myself and others. My experiment was undertaken in isolation, and it wasn’t until many years later that I traveled the much more difficult road of getting a handle on the role of restraint between people. That understanding came to me over a much longer period of time - 18 years living in the different cultural environments of New Zealand and Australia. Living abroad required me to navigate through not just the different European cultures of these places but the non-European (Maori and Aboriginal) ones, which in turn forced me to confront a much more complex picture of human beings than any I imagined before my arrival in that part of the world. Learning that direct eye contact with Maori females or elders could be seen as disrespectful, for instance, or that expressing enthusiasm over an idea you’ve come up with too soon to a roomful of Aussies might result in someone “taking the piss out of you” offered new insights about the proper use of restraint in relationship.
This was particularly interesting when I returned to live in the U.S. a few years ago and noticed what I consider to be a stunning misunderstanding - and misapplication - of restraint. Restraint itself seems like an oxymoron in America’a hyper-expressive culture for a simple reason: it’s definition is limited to simply being an obstacle to others. As it's generally applied, it has nothing to do with the freely chosen, highly-disciplined restraint needed to deepen understanding of a situation and the relationships involved in that situation.
The best example of the misapplication of restraint I can think of in the current U.S. situation is the obvious one: a Congress setting historical records for inactivity and disingeneously patting itself on the back for its’ “economic discipline”. You don’t need me to tell you this flies in the face of study after study showing that there would be tremendous economic benefits if immigration reform were passed in the U.S., or if a nationwide commitment to infrastructure renewal were undertaken.
Restraint as obstruction undercuts the value of restraint that deepens understanding and relationship in two essential ways: 1) It ignores how restraint can get people to operate outside of entrenched habit patterns and discover something new; something that can then be applied to a greater common end, and 2) It pushes relationships towards stereotypical - and frequently prejudicial - assumptions, an ideological narrowmindedness that undercuts the value of keeping one’s own impulses at bay for a period of time in order to give space for redefining relationships between people who may have different ideas about things. I can think of times when as a parent, for instance, I wanted to yell at one of my children but succeeded in holding myself in check - discovering in the end more about my child’s real reason for being out too late, or why so much money was spent. Those memories stand in stark contrast to the times when I didn’t show restraint, yelled at or otherwise disrespected my kids, and thus stopped any further understanding - and progress - in its tracks.
If you apply this example to the so-called “discipline” of the current Congress, it’s easy to see the gap. In Congress, there is 1) little if any desire to discover anything new, and 2) little if any desire to advance the relationship between the opposing parties. There is just a fierce focus on destroying a perceived opponent. Refusal on it’s own, without offering up something new - or without the good will necessary to improve difficult reationships - isn’t restraint. It’s obstinancy, and laziness. It’s an attitude that squeezes the life out of a situation, depriving it of the opportunity to move onto something that will improve it.
We can, and must, do a lot better than this. Understanding the proper use of restraint is one way forward.