Jan 21, 2013

Fighting Temptations

Taking resolutions when a new year comes or at specific moments in our lives (such as the end of fasting seasons or a wedding anniversary) is common practice these days. We say and hear people say things like "I am going to lose weight", "I will be more friendly", "I will call my mom regularly", "No more cigarettes/liquor/drugs for me". However, in most of these cases, results are short-lived or nonexistent and more and more we seem to be expecting less and less of ourselves: The temptations are just too great!

The concept of temptation itself might shed a light into what is going on here.  It is a little bit of an oxymoron, since succumbing to a temptation generally results in both a quick but intense satisfaction and a long-lived more permanent inconvenience, be it moral, physical or cognitive. For the fans of Conditioning in Psychology, it can be compared to using a strong positive reinforcement and a mild negative reinforcement to teach the same behavior.

Fighting the desire that a temptation brings therefore depends on how strong the instant gratification is, compared to how drastic the negative consequences can be, coupled with the subject's "will power". You probably already realized that the use of the term temptation to describe a desire implies awareness to some degree of the existence of the inconvenience, otherwise nothing would stop you. The problem lies in the fact that the risk associated with the negative consequence is generally underestimated, often misunderstood and constantly taken lightly until the moment the feeling of regret kicks in. 

The most common way of dealing with temptation is to reduce the frequency/importance of the desired behavior: "Common, it's just one doughnut, It won't kill me", "I will only drink socially". This method induces a constant struggle and "will power" here is key. Where it fails is in the fact that, like all addictions, the instant gratification becomes more acute when restarting a behavior after letting it go momentarily, meanwhile awareness of the negative consequence gets repressed.  

One way of dealing with temptations is complete abstinence! Abstaining from the behavior, thus abandoning pleasure, to effectively eliminate any possibility of pain. This is  very improbable, actually closer to the impossible, as the world we live in today is more hedonistic/epicurean than ever (philosophies based on the premise that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and that if something is good, it outta be pleasurable. This can be illustrated by this line from the Epic of Gilgamesh "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night" - Gotta love Wikipedia).

I will live you with these thought-provoking words from St Augustine: 

"Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation".

Is it better though? That is my question. All I know for sure is that being tempted is not the best situation in the world and at least Jesus seem to corroborate this since in the Lord's Prayer he proposed, you can read the following: "[...] And lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from evil [...]".

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