It's not asceticism, it's real life.

Published on 2024-02-04

Asceticism gets invoked quite often when talking about abstaining from what we might call consumer pleasures: commercial social media, video games optimized for dopamine throughput, fast food, things of that nature.

I feel like that does it an injustice, because I'm not convinced those things can make you happy in a meaningful way.

I suppose this has been a dialogue I've been having with myself for pretty much as long as I can remember. I've long been very concerned with this idea of real experiences--things unencumbered by the apparently manipulative properties of consumerism. I've sought to eschew them many times, often with some success, but I find this manipulative brand of pleasure always finds its way back in different forms.

Asceticism, taken literally... kind of sucks. I can't convince myself that a life without pleasure--the way many people around me seem to frame asceticism today--is one worth living. And so, I'm always kind of surprised when I'm reminded that people have had very different ideas of what asceticism really means. Often enough, asceticism isn't about being unhappy to some end, but rather developing a more mature relationship to happiness itself.

I truly don't feel like consumer pleasures make me happy. I find that's how my brain often interprets them; when I'm trying to reflexively justify them to myself, I'll often invoke ideas like how "I deserve to be happy"--something that's obviously true. But I really don't feel like in a larger sense that's what it means to be happy. Those things might feel good in the particular moment they're being engaged with, but they always end, and I find that while I may feel like some urge has been satisfied, I never feel "better" afterwards. Always worse.

Going on a walk. Getting exercise. Writing. Painting. These are all things that make me feel happy. But so does eating good food, particularly food I emotionally invested myself in making. Seriously engaging with a video game or movie. Really connecting to people over the internet. All things that have been abstracted away by consumer culture. Real people things that embody real pleasures.

When I was younger and I tried to eschew "desires" that I feared were hurting me, I fear I was actually throwing the baby out with the bath water. There was always so much there that I was missing out on, so much being casually written off. And obviously doing that should have negative consequences on your life. Maybe I needed to metaphorically watch paint dry for a while before it started to really make sense to me, but at the same time, those experiences had such a strong influence on my understanding of what "asceticism" means. Influences I am still in turn working to eschew.

What I ought to be doing is seeking to better understand the things that make me superficially happy, to dig deeper, and to hopefully break that hollow shell of experience and start making it real again.

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