Lent starts today.
I realized this only when I logged on to facebook this morning (guess I’m not giving that up*) and saw a bunch of Lenten articles – like this infographic on fasting, and this one on top ten things Americans give up – and suddenly realized: “oh, yeah. Is that today?” (Cue that mental scramble where you quickly run inventory on what you’ve already done since waking. Guess coffee is out, too*.)
*Not really. You could still give up either facebook or coffee for Lent, even after unknowingly slipping up. It’s not about perfection. It’s about the practice.
Cue also, however, that desire to talk about Lent at a higher level. I’ve written about Lent a couple of times before. In 2013, “Let’s Do Lent,” And in 2014, “The beauty of Lent and why it works for anyone.” And this year is no different, in sharing the merits:
1. It’s not just about “religion.”
Even religion shouldn’t really be about “religion” for religion’s sake. It’s really about bettering the human spirit, human experience, human condition. It’s about our own and our collective wellbeing.
Lent is traditionally a Catholic holiday, but Christians aren’t the only ones who practice fasting or abstinence. The Buddhists have their own version – Vassa – which runs throughout the rainy season in Thailand, mid July to mid October (yeah, 3 months instead of 40 days.) And same goes for some Jewish practices, including Yom Kippur. As well as Hinduism, Jainism, and Islam.
So even if we aren’t religious, logic might dictate that if all of these different religions practice some form of short-term or seasonal asceticism – abstaining from worldly pleasures – maybe there’s some merit to it.
Nietzsche explored it in his essay “What do ascetic ideals mean?” And Alain de Botton in his “Religion for Atheists” and his TED Talk, “Atheism 2.0,” And the New York Times and Huffington Post have covered similar angles: “a religious ritual attracts even nonbelievers” and “why this atheist is observing Lent,” respectively.
There is merit at the core of religion – intent to give our life meaning, direction and purpose. And even if we shun religion, we can still develop and embrace a moral code. It does not matter what you “call” yourself: if you want to be a better person, live deliberately and with intent.
In short: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, yo.
2. It marks a timeframe.
Much like each New Year marks the opportunity to improve by way of resolutions and we see Jan. 1 as being a day to “restart,” Lent can be a similar secular signifier. Marking these days as starting points takes some of the guesswork out of the “when” of self-growth.
“Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, meaning “spring” – much like German Lenz and Dutch lente. It is derived from the Germanic root for long, as the days (hours of sunlight) lengthen during this time of year.
And with spring comes the opportunity for “spring cleaning” in all parts of our lives. Similarly, Lent offers the opportunity for rejuvenation and regrowth.
3. It inspires an analysis, assessment and improvement of our nitty, gritty everyday.
3a. Reducing (or kicking) negative habits or thoughts frees us, even if only temporarily.
In order to focus more on one thing, one must also learn to focus less on other things… because our lives are increasingly complex, something has to change in order for us to get out of the continual spin cycle of life… Giving up something that is a regular part of your life… allows you to focus more.” – Todd Peperkorn, Why Lent Should Matter to Everyone.
This is particularly true when it comes to time. (Put simply: if you’re not watching TV or surfing the internet, you have to be doing something else.)
Freeing ourselves from negative activities, habits or thoughts fundamentally creates white space in our days. Limiting vices frees up time and attention for better pursuits…
3b. Building the positive: that now-freed-up time and attention can be diverted to focus on what matters.
We don’t exist in vacuums.
Don’t simply suppress – we aren’t at our best when stifled and left to stagnate. Instead, that stillness offers the opportunity to redirect our energy to something good.
Once white space is created by the elimination of a thing, we can then fill it with a more desirable action or thought. This is true with time and habits, but it’s perhaps even more true with thoughts: obsessing over not doing a thing is almost as toxic for our mental energy as just doing the thing. That’s not the point. The point is to then feed ourselves with positive things – to replace our thought process with things we want to “obsess over;” to fuel our energies with positive fodder so that we naturally divert away from negative input.
4. It fosters the change by offering the framework to do so.
To live with discipline is to live deliberately. And to live deliberately is to live well.
Eschewing discipline – direction, deliberateness, intent – is only to cheat ourselves.
“Our inner lives must be lent a structure and our best thoughts reinforced to counter the continuous pull of distraction and disintegration.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Without a degree of discipline or framework – whether prescribed or self-defined – we become anxious and restless; listless and floating.
“Secular life is not, of course, unacquainted with calendars and schedules. We know them well in relation to work, and accept the virtues of reminders of lunch meetings, cash-flow projections and tax deadlines. But it expects that we will spontaneously find our way to the ideas that matter to us and gives us weekends off for consumption and recreation. It privileges discovery, presenting us with an incessant stream of new information – and therefore it prompts us to forget everything.” ― Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion
Lent offers the framework to practice this. All we have to do is opt in. And opting in to the framework does not require subscription to its full context.
5. It not only fosters a better life, but better enjoyment of all life’s little pleasures.
This part actually isn’t talked about in asceticism. In fact, one gets the pretty distinct impression that one might instead aspire to forego worldly pleasures and indulgences with the objective of never coming back to them. And in some instances, that may be the case.
In other instances, we always intend to come back. And sometimes, part of this exercise of withholding is a desire to experience it all over again, better, with refreshed senses. Because going without something builds appreciation for it.
Nothing makes you appreciate life quite like a near-death experience, and nothing makes beer or chocolate taste quite as good as denying yourself the indulgence for a while – say, forty days.
Lent offers the opportunity to get off of the “hedonic treadmill” and dodge “hedonic adaptation” – the phenomenon we all experience when new things – be it vacations, promotions, new cars, etc. – lose their appeal and ability to make us happy over time. (Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.)
Our common solution to this plateau in happiness is to chase more – another vacation, another promotion, a nicer car – only to have it happen all over again. Hence the treadmill.
The other solution available to us, rather than pursuing happiness by chasing constant novelty and input, is to simply step off the treadmill and deny ourselves the input. To take a break.
Coming back to a worldly pleasure after an “ascetic hiatus” brings the same – or similar – rush of happiness as the first time did (or pursuing the next thing would.) The act of making do without and then coming back to a thing we enjoy, in and of itself, makes us happy.
In short: it’s not just religion. It’s about deliberate intent – in actions, in thought, it life – and using that to create richer meaning and wellbeing for ourselves.
Not sure what to give up? Well, Buzzfeed’s willing to help you decide.