A word I’ve never had the slightest opportunity to use. Denial, the dictionary has to say about it, particularly self-denial.
I have so little self-denial! a person might say coyly when presented with — particularly this time of year — a plate of goodies, just before they reconsider — oh, well, on second thought! — and reach a hand toward a particularly tempting bite.
Other than that usage — so blithe, so redolent of pop psychology — I can’t imagine a single way self-denial might be inserted into conversation: it’s a concept that’s been stripped of meaning, an act long ago fallen out of fashion.
I’m certainly not bemoaning that fact. To practice self-denial — what would be the point? What would it be for, other than …. I dunno. To prove a point? For one’s own good? You give up smoking, you turn down a rich piece of cake, you practice self-denial. Maybe you exchange all the old-style lightbulbs in your house and turn down the heat.
Our culture keeps the concept of self-denial firmly on a transactional level. You give something up — you get something in return. You cut the sugar from your diet, you are gifted with… (I suppose)… better health. You simplify your life, you’re blessed with… tranquility and peace.
So abnegation means self-denial, and there’s little point (who cares?) discussing it.
But then there’s the verb form of the word …
Four days ago, after I gave up on driving so aimlessly and at the same time so purposefully through the neighborhood with my freight of sleepless child and all my complicated baggage — of what I needed, of what she needed, of what should happen, of what was most important — the word self-abnegation all of a sudden seemed scrawled across my afternoon in bold, black, foot-high, maybe even flaming, letters.
To abnegate: To deny, renounce; to surrender, to relinquish.
So Latinate, so medieval! And the interesting thing about the definition is the way it changes our focus from the transactional nature of self-denial (at least as we see it these days, hair shirts having gone, also, out of fashion) to something much more difficult, and powerful: the struggle. If denying, renouncing, surrendering or relinquishing isn’t the hardest frigging work you’ve ever engaged in then I sure don’t want your job, whatever it might be.
In parenthood, one’s will continuously butts up against something so much larger and stronger than it is — a life force? A universe? — and there is something downright… religious about the — I don’t know what else to call it — self-abnegation that almost always is the lesson learned. There is nothing concretely transactional about the self-abnegation of parenthood: I mean, I can sacrifice my desires for my child’s well-being until I’m blue in the face, but it’s not ever ever ever going to get me back into a size 6 pair of jeans.
This sort of sacrifice is dangerous stuff. This is poking at the dark heart of motherhood — here there be dragons! — with a particularly strong stick. This is mixing the theological (or the spiritual) with the everyday, and to do so is anathema (interestingly enough, another religious word) to the people and the culture we are these days.
Is the self-abnegation that is part and parcel of parenthood good or bad? I’m not saying ( I don’t know; I made a C in Existential Philosophy at UGA in 1983). It just is, as loathe as we are to acknowledge it.
A couple of other religiously-connotated words:
Oh, they’re not words connected to us, (even should we have a religious affiliation, these things being also these days somewhat out of vogue) but belong to other people’s lives, across oceans and far away.
But throw those sorts of words into the parenthood mix and what do you get?
A culture where parent participation is sometimes elevated to a byzantine art? Where guilt can be paramount? One where places exist where parents must undergo interviews to get their kids in preschool?