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David Hegg: Society’s traditional denial of self-denial

Ethically Speaking

Posted: February 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 6, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Among ancients, the greatest honor was given to those who, seeing the greater good of the greater number, chose valiantly to deny themselves certain rights and pleasures in order improve those around them.

But somewhere along the line of history, the honorable virtue of self-denial became associated with weakness, as in not “looking out for No. 1” and “pulling one’s own strings.”

In fact, it became commonplace to believe that only fools knowingly denied themselves something in order to create something better for others. Nice guys finish last, and we would much rather win than be nice.

Only chumps allowed themselves to be taken advantage of, or willingly gave up something in order to better someone else.

But the fact that it is not highly appreciated in no way means that self-denial has lost its value in society. We still see it, and sometimes it is even applauded; but for the most part, it has ceased to be included in the list of virtues we consider essential, and attempt to pass on to our children.

We also see the consequences of a “me-first and foremost” mindset in our world.

It used to be that only children were allowed to be self-centered. It was their natural bent, and the role of the parent was to banish such foolishness before the child was allowed out into civil society.

This was done by increasingly saying “no” to the child’s desire for his or her every wish to be fulfilled ... immediately.

Over time, children learned something we used to call “delayed gratification.” This was the virtue of waiting to get your way, which necessitated saying “no” to your own desires.

In simple terms, this was taking control over personal desires and denying them their way. Self-denial — the inner ability to say “no” to self — was considered an essential component of maturity.

And herein lies the stark reality: Our society is increasingly being pulled into the vortex of selfishness because the childish propensity to pamper, indulge and satiate self has been turned into the virtue of freedom, self-expression and — most of all — the crown jewel of modern ethics, high self-esteem.

Our goal, apparently, is to feel good about ourselves, and anything that might bring sadness or suffering must never be allowed to find place in our lives.

Chief among the things we’ve had to jettison in our quest for ever-greater levels of self-love is self-denial.

If you love yourself, then it only follows that it is your duty to fulfill your desires as often and as completely as possible, regardless of how this world view affects those around you.

Despite the huge success of the self-esteem movement, and its attendant ruinous consequences, we do still see the value of self-denial in isolated areas.

The military has long considered it essential to rid its recruits of the entitlement gene, and the rigors of basic training do just that.

The academies that shape our law enforcement and fire professionals also consider self-denial to be an essential character trait in their men and women, and work hard to build this control into them.

Even the sports world at times recognizes that when Kobe Bryant denies his primary desire — to shoot the basketball — and instead passes the ball to his teammates, the team wins more games.

What the military, law enforcement, fire and some enlightened sports fans understand is that the ability to overcome the biggest challenges in life begins with the ability to overcome the tyrant of self.

Those who can face down their own desires, making the self their slave rather than their master, are more apt to stay away from addicting habits, more capable of staying faithful to their commitments in the face of temptations to the contrary, and more ready to act courageously in times when the welfare of others threatens the serenity of self.

Jesus put it this way: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” 

In order to follow the master, we have to resign the mastery of our lives. And, while on the surface this looks like losing, it is really the best option.

The selfish life has never created an authentic sense of purpose, satisfaction or accomplishment. History books are full of men and women who have lived their lives for themselves, only to realize too late that their lives were devoid of personal value and satisfaction.

Ultimately, the self-satiated life is not worth living, and we can only hope our world catches on soon.

David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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