Abstinence has traditionally been the preserve of religion. Now the UK government is getting in on the act. In place of Lent or Ramadan, it is during the collective hang-over of early January when the abstinence messages hit home. Sugar and alcohol are the main targets, as it tends to be for Christians in Lent. But not for the sake of the soul – rather for the health of the body.
The sort of self-denial demanded by abstinence or moderation contrasts with another more popular form of denial. We doubt the message. Health messages are treated with as much confidence as religious faith. They seem changeable and uncertain. Experts disagree and there appear to be contradictions. Will it be the same advice next year, or will they shift position again? The guideline to limit alcohol consumption to 14 units a week, equally whether male or female, has caused consternation up and down the UK.
Meanwhile, it is a good time for cancer charities to get in on the act. High-pressure marketing campaigns were ramped up during January with the offer of hope for a rescue from a cancerous death. They pursue a cure in case our preventative abstinence fails us.
For Christians, the end of all this abstinence talk is at Easter, when all fears are wiped away by the miraculous story of resurrection. Chocolate eggs are consumed and wine is placed back on the table.
Perhaps it is stretching it too far to make comparisons between religious ideas about the defeat of death with the aspirations of health research charities to ‘beat cancer’. But I guess we all seek a second chance if struck down and afflicted.
Somewhere in all this is a way of life that is hopeful and healthy. Abstinence and moderation may well create a stronger foundation for this way than we are prepared to admit.