The Joy of Self-Limitation

One important lesson I have learned from our family garage sales is that there is more joy in dispossession than there is in acquisition. Things that I thought I needed had become a burden that needed to be removed. I was so happy to bid adieu to what I now classified as junk. The popularity of garages sales attests that the fact that getting rid of things that were once desired is a widespread phenomenon. I suspect that the problem is national. Our cluttered tables were like personal confessions, admissions that we made a significant number of bad purchases. I am, though a little ashamed to admit it, part of the “Acquisitive Society”.

Back in 1993, in his Liechtenstein address, Alexander Solzhenitsyn had some unwanted advice for the West: “The time is urgently upon us to limit our wants. It is difficult to bring ourselves to sacrifice and self-denial, because in political, public, and private life we have long since dropped the golden key of self-restraint to the ocean floor. But self-limitation is the fundamental and wisest step of a man who has obtained his freedom.” He saw, with fresh eyes, the excesses of the capitalistic spirit. Our wants are running ahead of our needs and choking off the arteries that feed our spirituality. After 27 years, his words are more relevant than ever.

Robert Cardinal Sarah applauded what Solzhenitsyn had to say and added his own footnote: “What is ultimately at stake in temperance is our capacity for adoration. Excess consumption anesthetizes the contemplative life and gives the illusion of power. The consumer society is inebriating; it sets man against God”. Cardinal Ratzinger, in The Ratzinger Report, urged people to, “…find again the courage of non-conformism, the capacity to oppose many of the trends of the surrounding culture . . .”

The Covid-19 pandemic is now forcing self-limitation on people, much to their horror. It has been excruciatingly difficult for many. Their cultural ideal—material acquisition—has been taken away from them. Yet, another ideal can take its place, spiritual development. There may very well be a providential reason behind the pandemic.

It is important to understand that “self-limitation” does not imply some kind of diminution of our being. Here, the distinction between “want” and “need” comes into play. Our wants are infinite, a point that is well understood by the agents of commercial advertising. Just today I received an email from a stamp dealer advertising a set of the nine Trans-Mississippi postage stamps from 1898. They are presented as a “must” acquisition for any serious stamp collector. The price? Just $3,695.00 (with small flaws). And the need is urgent: “Order yours right away!” If I want them, I certainly do not need them—a small example of how we are barraged on a daily basis with advertisements for things we do not need.

The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard wrote about “bad unendingness” (schlechte Unendlichkeit). The endless accumulation of material things does not bring satisfaction, but an increase of dissatisfaction. In Shakespeare’s words, “As if increase of appetite had grown by what it fed on” (Hamlet i, 2). We have been well advised that, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). God is infinite, but an infinity that is calming and fulfilling. For St. Teresa of Avila, “He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.”

We can become so centered on our wants, that we overlook our needs. Self-limitation can be soul-expanding. We may put aside our material concerns and occupy more of our time with prayer, spiritual reading, listening to good music, and conversations with friends. Exercising the soul can be surprisingly delightful. And its benefits are unlimited.

G. K. Chesterton, in his Orthodoxy, writes about “the poetry of limits”. Polygamy is insensitivity to having one spouse. Being faithful to one woman is a small price to pay for the joy of being married to one woman. Robinson Crusoe treasured each item he rescued from shipwreck. “Each kitchen tool becomes an ideal,” Chesterton writes, “because Crusoe might have dropped it into the sea”. We are born once and, we might hope, have one set of parents. There is but one sun and one heaven. Too much addition spoils our appreciation for the uniqueness of the singular. Every choice we make is an act of exclusion, self-limitation. We cannot have everything at once.

As much as a person may want to avoid self-limitation, it is an irremovable factor in every one of his choices. To choose but one home is to reject all other homes. To choose to marry one person is to exclude all others. In this sense, every choice is an act of self-sacrifice. It is foolish, therefore, to attempt to avoid self-sacrifice. If we want to enjoy the paintings housed in a particular museum and have only twenty minutes it would be prudent to enjoy just a few, and happily accept not seeing all of them. We should exult in self-sacrifice so that we can attend to the more important things.

Image: Hermit by Artur Izrailian

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Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He is is the author of 42 books and a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life.  Some of his latest books, The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling, and Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, Restoring Philosophy and Returning to Common Sense and Let Us not Despair are posted on He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.  

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