Fasting time! Happy time? The commandment of abstinence has left its religious corner and arrived in the middle of society. But why do people actually practice renunciation? What is fasting? And imagine that we could use fasting as a social experiment for more sustainability and mindfulness – a game of make-believe.
Origin and change of the fasting culture
Fasting is nothing new. For almost 2,000 years the phenomenon of the “passion time” or “Easter penitential period” has been known as preparation for the Easter high festival. The term fasting in its original meaning means as much as to hold fast, namely to the commandment of abstinence – in the Catholic Church during the time between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. That makes 40 days of abstinence under strict rules of fasting.
But where in former times people used to fast primarily to repent, to come closer to God and thus to bring about their own salvation, today in the rarest cases there are such religious motives at work. On the contrary, one does not fast for a supposedly higher power or time after one’s own life, but for oneself – in the here and now. Consequently, fasting is primarily about one’s own health, not less often about self-discipline and more and more about sustainability. Lent is often a welcome time to finally implement the ambitious New Year’s resolutions.
„Fasting is primarily about one’s own health, not less often about self-discipline and more and more about sustainability.“
And indeed, fasting is becoming more and more popular. The research company forsa has been conducting annual surveys since 2012 and was able to announce a new record in its last results report this year: At 63 percent, more people than ever before think it makes sense to avoid certain stimulants or consumer goods for several weeks. In the first edition of the survey, this figure was just over 50 percent. Young people, in particular, are more inclined to fasting or to give up certain foods for a limited period of time. 81 percent of 18-29 year olds think fasting makes sense. Among the 30-44 year olds, the figure is just under 70 percent, whereas only one in two of the over-60 year olds considers fasting to be meaningful.
Consumption overload in the multi-option society
Actually, it’s a little paradoxical. We live in a time that stands for everything else, but not really for mindful consumption or even renunciation. We are part of a consumer society that is at home in abundance. The maxim “higher, faster, further” has become the central principle of production and consumption and allows us to experience an unprecedented diversity and short-livedness of all conceivable goods – whether food, clothing or electronic devices. Limitation and asceticism? Obviously out of place.
But these ever-increasing choices in our “multi-option society” are increasingly missing their true meaning: they do not make us freer and happier, but overtax us and make us sick. The US psychologist Barry Schwartz speaks of the “paradox of choice” and means the fact that too many choices paralyze us and consequently make us dissatisfied.
And this may be the reason why fasting has now arrived in the middle of society. People practice renunciation for a certain time in order to get orientation and clarity back. It is a matter of adjusting one’s own focus. What is important to me? What is good for me? What do I really need to be happy? The renunciation and conscious reduction of consumption should help to increase personal health and the individual level of well-being – let’s just call it healthisfaction.
„People practice renunciation in order to get back orientation and clarity. It is a matter of adjusting one’s own focus.“
The classics of fasting are often responsible for a guilty conscience – be it with regard to one’s own health or the sustainability of one’s own lifestyle. According to the latest available surveys, people fast mainly alcohol and sweets. But where last year the topic of meat ranked third with 35 percent behind the top fasting duo, in 2019 it is already almost 50 percent. Recent developments in the food industry and corresponding offers towards vegetarianism and veganism make this kind of fasting more and more bearable even for confirmed carnivores (see my article on the meat consumption of tomorrow).
Fasting as a revelation of the zeitgeist
One can also often see the spirit of the times and topics that are currently hotly debated in society from what is being fasted. And so not only is television being increasingly put aside for a while, but above all mobile phones and computers – 29 percent of Germans state that they consciously want to stay offline for a while. The evergreen topic of digitization seems to be reaching its limits here and there, especially in the private sector. Ever new data scandals, rampant hate culture in social media and spreading fake news undoubtedly make the (mostly temporary) exit easier.
And finally, the crumbling of the facade of Germany’s favorite status symbol is becoming more and more obvious: one in five people want to do without the car. Diesel gates and consumer deceptions by manufacturers on the one hand, but also concerns due to clogged and fine dust polluted city centres on the other, seem to favor the step into (temporary) car independence. And if the city even offers you a free public transport ticket including a car sharing voucher in exchange for you not using your car, car fasting can mean a real wealth of mobility.
Of course you have to evaluate these figures with caution. And fasting per se should not and cannot be seen as an agreed future for new social needs. But what if we were to regard these “signs of abandonment” and the associated alternative consumption patterns as real laboratories? What if we were to use fasting as a field of experimentation for new societal systems towards greater mindfulness and sustainability?
Imagine there would be a speed limit of 130 km/h on German motorways for 40 days; or a car ban in German city centres; or health traffic lights on sweets and alcohol in supermarkets, or real and thus more expensive prices on meat, which would then inevitably lead to fasting here and there. What do you think – would we be off better or worse? What would that do to our society?
Mindfulness and conscious consumption
I am sure that this could help us as a society to appreciate the things of our consumption more and to perceive them more intensively. Consumption would again more frequently be accompanied by real enjoyment and true joy, since we would once again balance certain self-evident things whose excesses demonstrably harm us and our environment. Mindfulness would become a companion in our consumer decisions and above all experiences. This special form of temporary minimalism, as I now simply translate fasting, may lure us out of supposed comfort zones and bring us into real areas of well-being.
„This special form of temporary minimalism may lure us out of supposed comfort zones and bring us into real areas of well-being.“
One thing is clear: Mindfulness is the answer to the increasing complexity and madness of our time and thus a fundamental counter impulse to the omnipresent culture of waste and excitement. Fasting has the potential to bring people back to the point where you ask yourself what does you good and what do you really need to be happy. And don’t get me wrong: In the end, it’s not about total renunciation, but about a more conscious, even more mindful measure. If, through personal and inspirational success stories, it can also help to make our consumption behavior more sustainable in general, we should perhaps fast more often. All of us, of course, so that no one feels disadvantaged. And hey, it’s only temporary. Or isn’t it?
- Forsa (2019): Fasten. Ergebnisbericht 2019. Internet.
By the way, I am fasting waste at the moment and fortunately I am also an ambassador of the “waste fasting” of the German Environmental Aid. Food waste basically is unnecessary, and fasting simply means a more mindful handling of our food. More on https://www.duh.de/verschwendungsfasten-2019/
My television interview (only in German) in the show “defacto” under the title „Ritual oder trend: why do you fast?“:
Full episode can be seen in the media library: https://www.hr-fernsehen.de/sendungen-a-z/defacto/sendungen/defacto-fragt-die-hessen-ritual-oder-trend-warum-fasten-sie-,sendung-56602.html