Editors’ Note: This piece is a part of our Camp Yale issue, with opinions by incoming first-years.
I stand by the vending machine, fiddling with the crumpled 10-yuan note in my pocket while maintaining eye contact with a bottle of lemonade. I wait several minutes for everyone in the area to clear out before approaching the machine — six yuan, a little less than one U.S. dollar, for that perfect blend of cold, sweet and tart. My steps are cautious and guilt-ridden. Something about this feels like the worst kind of overindulgence. Sure, my tongue is dry and it’s 90-something degrees outside … but there will be water in the taxi. It’s on its way. I should be able to wait.
On the other hand, lemonade.
But when I make my beverage selection, I purposely self-sabotage. My hand sidesteps and hits the button adjacent to the one for lemonade. The machine gurgles, dispensing something in a green bottle and five one-yuan coins in change — saving me one extra yuan at the expense of choosing what I actually wanted. I enter the taxi, head held high.
Self-denial happens for a number of reasons: guilt, attempts at self-control, misplaced values. Our first instinct when we trip and fall is to yell “I’m okay!” because we don’t feel worthy of provoking others’ concern. We don’t splurge on that sweater because we need to stop ourselves from spending that much on something we don’t need. I put off meals because the dull ache of hunger fills me with a sense of righteousness. If I want but do not take, I must be the opposite of greedy, right?
This is my grandfather’s favorite story about me: Once, while my family was on vacation, we passed an ice cream store. My sister clamored for a cone, so she got one. My parents asked me if I wanted one as well. My mouth watered, but I told them no — the five dollars for one scoop here could buy me an entire carton at the local grocery store. My grandfather loves this story because he thinks it exhibits my logic and self-control. I was proud every time he brought it up. Now though, all I think about is how I never buy cartons of ice cream at home, in an extension of my initial self-denial.
Self-denial is necessary, even noble, when getting what you want is impractical or burdens others. You shouldn’t do everything you want to just because you want to do it. Claiming exorbitant purchases or massive wastes of time as “selfcare,” for instance, has far more long-term consequences than short-term benefits. But it’s equally harmful to deny yourself the important things in life — choosing the major you (actually) love; taking that niche class that seems utterly impractical; or spending time with those dear to you.
In psychology, the term “ego depletion” refers to a phenomenon where people who exhibit self-control in one situation will have less self-control left for subsequent decisions. Exhausting our willpower on trivial issues can lead to worse net outcomes. Case in point: I skipped breakfast one morning and ended up ordering two very unnecessary pairs of light-up sneakers on Taobao that afternoon.
A crucial aspect of my personal brand of asceticism is
refusing to show that I want anything in the first place. No, I’m not tired/hungry/thirsty/ cold. No, it’s okay. My relatives in China always comment on how I’m so easy to satisfy. I’m not a picky eater, nor do I need to eat much. If taken shopping, I’ll avow that I’m perfectly content just browsing, that nothing in particular has caught my eye.
“Crystal was no trouble at all,” the family I stayed with this summer told my mom. “Sometimes, we forgot they were even there.”
I took pride in being low-maintenance — in never stopping to look at a bracelet in a store, in giving noncommittal shrugs when asked to pick a movie to watch — but there was nothing to be proud of. The food I didn’t eat went bad and got thrown away. I had constant runny noses because I never asked my hosts to turn the air conditioning down. The one extra yuan I didn’t spend on lemonade is now wedged uselessly in the bottom of my purse.
This is our reasoning: Self-control is a good skill to have, and to want something is to challenge our self-control; therefore, our appetites must be evil. As the poet Richard Siken put it, “The enormity of my desire disgusts me.” The only way to cleanse ourselves of guilt is to repress our hunger.
But why should we be disgusted at all? We are what we want: our ambitions, our favorite songs, the cool leather jackets we’re certain will alleviate our gender dysphoria once and for all. Our desires don’t exist to lead us astray, they’re just suggestions we give ourselves on how to be happier. Some of these suggestions can be harmful, but they are never inherently evil.
Dinner tonight was meat buns and mung bean soup. There was plenty of food available, more than enough to go around. Usually, one bun is enough to stave off my hunger, two make me full and three is pushing it. On the other hand, I was hungry, and they were very good buns.
I ate four.
Crystal Wang is a first year in Trumbull College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.