Self discipline a challenge in the modern world

Like many of us, MP John Hayes enjoyed pancakes last week.
Like many of us, MP John Hayes enjoyed pancakes last week.
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Last week, like millions of other Britons, I enjoyed pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, a tradition dating back to the times when it was necessary to use up those ingredients to be foregone for the 40 days of Lent which follows.

Now I suspect few people give up eggs, flour or milk – the staple of pancakes – with many instead choosing to 
sacrifice luxuries such as chocolate, alcohol, or, apparently, in the case of the Prime Minister, salt and vinegar crisps.

Though Lent is a Christian observance, a period of contemplation ahead of Easter’s feast, it is also a chance for all of us – regardless of religious belief – to consider what we can go without for six or so weeks.

Such self-discipline is a challenge in the modern world, especially when one considers that the goods we consume are more easily available than ever before, and often cheaper too.

More fundamentally, much of popular culture celebrates excess, a preoccupation with living only for the moment with, for many, material satisfaction being confused with fulfilment. By contrast, the notion of restraint is seen as old fashioned, and somehow pointless.

Though consumerism has provided us with a remarkable variety of goods – in ways previous generations could scarcely have imagined – endless plenty impedes our ability to value these things. Having strawberries out of season superficially appeals, but makes them much less special.

Economists call this the law of diminishing returns; in essence, scarcity breeds desire and underpins value. Cheap supermarket food has led to huge quantities of wasted produce, and some people even think nothing of discarding low-cost clothes after wearing them a handful of times.

The environmental cost of all this is immense, not to mention the human toll, given so many cheap goods come from overseas.

Finger-tipped access to a vast choice of things lures us to what we want here and now, so subsuming need and value. Immediate gratification of material desire is fleeting, bringing only cheap thrills – the antithesis of the rich meaning behind Lent, a time for sacrifices and contemplation.

Having treats, saving up for something special, giving not receiving may seem rather old fashioned, but they all make hearts soar.