yes friends – the atheist does lent.
when you grow up on the upper gulf coast, in the mardi gras belt, winter is different than it is here in virginia. christmas gives way to new year’s, then twelfth night, then mardi gras. after mardi gras comes lent, then it’s all capped off with easter. it’s a cycle of joyous fun, solemn reflection and sacrifice, and joyous fun again as spring appears. and yeah, it’s 110% catholic/episcopalian. you’d think that i’d do everything i could to run as far away from that sort of mindset as possible. but growing up, i never saw this as part of a religious adoration cycle. it’s just what everyone in mobile did (except the baptists, who never did anything fun or interesting in my estimation and were mad, dour and judgmental all the time).
but if you strip out the god from the gulf-coast winter and look at it from a secular life perspective, the celebration-reflection-celebration season makes a lot of sense. mardi gras/carnival season brings fun and joy to a dark, cold part of the calendar. and once you’ve spent january and sometimes february blowing the doors off and having fun, lent gives you a season of reflection, focus, recovery, and yes, even sacrifice. a built-in period of examination and editing is great. it’s good for writers – lord knows i read everything i write a thousand times over before i submit it, and even a few times after. but it’s also good for humans.
2014 in america is about excess. and i don’t mean OMG rock and roll and licentiousness. i mean the 24/7/365 intensity of information overload, the constant demands of work, and the realization that, though we think we’ve solved so many large problems, we have SO much work to do to make society just and equal. we are expected to be everything all the time, and what that “everything” is shifts so fast we don’t have time to keep up with the latest impossible-to-attain standard. and it’s painful, and it wears us down, and it’s not healthy. lent, to the secularist, is a nice excuse to voluntarily check out of things that don’t work. it’s a time to take a slow, solemn inventory of one’s life, find the places that are hurting, and take the sometimes-challenging steps to right the ship.
so yes, i do lent. i have since i was a teenager. in 12th grade, a friend and i gave up fast food cold turkey. for 40 days, nary an ounce of fast food passed the lips of a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. (best BELIEVE i had a big mac extra value meal super-sized on easter sunday, though.) and it was great. it did wonders for my sense of willpower and achievement. it was a clue that i could do something challenging that wasn’t easy and comfortable, but that was good for me. now, 16 years later, i’m starting another lenten sacrifice.
globally, the sacrifice i am making is fussy complacency. as i’ve alluded to before, 2013 was rough on my body. i finished gaining all the weight i’d lost in law school, which made me feel sluggish and down on myself. i worked so damn much in 2013 that i next-to-never saw the sun or went outside, going from the apartment to the garage at home to the garage at work to the office and back again. then in september, my compressed disc situation came to a head. i had to go through physical therapy and a series of very tight controls on what i could and couldn’t do. it was really the first time in my life that i had to face a series of physical limitations. and i did not handle it well. i got sulky, and sad, and kinda resigned myself to well, that’s it; i’m done. i won’t be able to move right ever again.
two weeks ago, i got a physical for the first time since my mid-20s. the doctor is a kind, patient, low-key woman who gently but firmly reminded me that a large portion of the recovery process from this injury is doing my part. she gently instructed me that i have to go outside and get some sun to correct my very low vitamin D levels. she noted that my back injury is aggravated by carrying weight around my midsection, so it’d be best to lose some. and she assured me that exercise will actually help me stop hurting, not hurt me further.
so lenten sacrifice means exercising instead of sitting. it means eating quality foods at snacktime instead of eating candy. it means taking a full inventory of my behavior and emotions to strip out the hurtful things (hurtful both to myself and to others). and it’s about facing the fact that getting older means being mindful. and at the end of 40 days, if i work this program properly, i will hopefully have the happy results of feeling better, hurting less and being a nicer person to be around. and as it happens, if a change yields happy results, it tends to perpetuate itself.
i am not advocating scrapping everything “bad” in your life and replacing it with everything “good.” that in and of itself is the type of excess that i believe a lenten-style sacrifice should avoid like the plague. lent is supposed to be thoughtful, careful, modest, and humble. you’re supposed to think holistically and act carefully. little tweaks, made in context, are the point. and you’re not supposed to brag about it either; just do it because it’s good for you. then, when the season ends, you’ve made some growth and can celebrate a hard-earned victory over the stuff that was dragging you down. you can do anything hard/good for you for 40 days.
so that’s my $0.02 re: lent. i think it’s healthy, provided you don’t take it to crazy self-abnegating extremes of penitence and harm. i think it’s good to take stock and enforce some changes, especially at a time when a lot of people you know are doing the same sort of thing and can offer you support. so here’s to lent, everybody, sincerely. go get some happy.