happy day 5 of atheist-lent.
yes, as always, the atheist observes lent. i grew up in a former french/spanish colony, in which catholic and high-liturgical protestant traditions are baked into the way of life. so when all my friends growing up gave something up, i did too. not for spiritual reasons, but to support them and to test my own willpower. there’s nothing more rewarding than completing a hard challenge.
so this year, i’ve come at this a little differently. in years past, all i’ve done is give something up: fast food, red meat, hard liquor, etc. that’s a fine way to test your mettle: go without something you like for 40 days to prove to yourself you’re a little tougher than you think you are. but that’s a pretty self-focused way to go about this. i wondered if there was a better tactic to use, and lo and behold, there is.
being a heathen, i was unaware that lent in the catholic tradition takes a three-fold approach: prayer, “fasting,” and “alms-giving.” obviously, prayer is a non-starter with me. i’ve got the sacrifice piece in good order: i’m giving up my evening laziness to dedicate 30 minutes every day to the exercise bike the man bought me. but alms-giving, or charitable donation, is a new facet for me. it’s a great way to take your focused dedication and use it for something good.
so this year, i’m giving as much as i can. every 5 days of the 40-day lenten cycle (you don’t count sundays in lent; they’re sort of built-in skip days), i will give at least $25 to a different charity. if i skip an exercise session for any reason, i will add a $5 fine to the charity piece. today is the first giving day, and i’m going with a group doing vital, amazing work: trans lifeline. what could be more important than saving the lives of trans people, who are so much more vulnerable to suicide (as well as other violence) than cis folks? and i won’t lie; the fact that the pope compared trans people’s existence to the danger of nuclear weapons may have inspired this donation.
i’ll pick a new group doing something important each giving day during lent. i have some groups in mind; others i’ll need to research. it’s literally the least i can do during a season of focus, discipline and being mindful.
mindful. that’s become a really loaded term in the age of the internet self-help complex. there are tons of sparkly infographics and pumped-up polished blogs swearing that drinking kale juice and running marathons will make you more “mindful.” but really, what the internet life-coach industry tends to offer is a kind of comfort masquerading as thoughtfulness. yes, you can make yourself feel healthier by watching what you eat and exercising. but bragging about “clean eating” (which is a LIE, by the way, and a really judgmentally caustic thing to say that shames others) and running marathons isn’t really being mindful. using yoga or belly-dancing to be “spiritual” usually just results in co-opting eastern religious traditions while erasing the brown folks who brought you the practice.
the trick in 2015 is to find a way to care about others without making it all about yourself. one of my biggest pet peeves is when people go on and on and on about how much they give to charity or how many good works they do. i knew a guy who, after spending high school being a seething pile of self-aggrandizing arrogant jerk-ery, went on to work in the nonprofit industry after college. i lost touch with him (on purpose) before this, but he resurfaced in our lives when a coworker of a friend randomly ended up on a match.com date with him. she told us he spent the entire night talking about all the great work he did – HE gave this money and HE did this project and HE raised this much and blah blah blah.
that’s not charity. that’s making yourself look good. and the motivation matters. do you really care about the world outside yourself, or are you just trying to use their gratitude to pump your own self-image?
so i’m not going to sit here and brag. that’s not the spirit of atheist-lent. the idea is to make a sacrifice and make a gift – go outside yourself and center others in the service of making things better. i’ll check in from time to time, if only to share a particularly awesome charity with y’all. but when you give, you have to give with the right frame of mind. even jesus, that awesome guy who christians never seem to actually listen to, said this was a good idea. “when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men.” [matthew 6:2]
there’s nothing wrong with being happy that you’re doing good work. just make your sacrifices and give your gifts humbly, modestly, and with an actual spirit of generosity. make it about the people you want to help, not about you. that’s what atheist-lent is all about, right?