Sunday, March 20, 2011

Lent



I'm not exactly what you would call a "religious" person. Oh sure, I went to Sunday School when I was a kid. Around the age of thirteen, I took part in a "confirmation" ceremony to become a member of the congregation of the Springdale Presbyterian Church in Louisville. At the ceremony, I was given a copy of the The Holy Bible with my name embossed in gold letters on the cover. I even went so far as to read the whole Bible from cover to cover. But, at some point, I kind of drifted away from Christianity and started developing my own belief system. I'm actually still working on that.

It's a process.

Meanwhile, there are some aspects of religion that still intrigue me. Like faith, for example. And forgiveness. And who's not a fan of love? I just felt like there was a lot of extra baggage involved with established religion that I didn't need to carry around for the rest of my life.

Lately, though, I've been thinking a lot about Lent. Growing up Protestant, Lent was always more of an abstract idea than a serious commitment. I mean, we didn't stop eating meat for forty days or anything like that. In fact, I don't really remember giving up anything for Lent. I remember hearing about it in Sunday School and maybe even considering it, but I don't think I ever actually took it to heart.

The basic idea of Lent is to give up something you care about to symbolically mirror the 40 days of fasting that Jesus underwent in the wilderness before embarking on his ministry. The practice of self-denial is supposed to help prepare the faithful for the celebration of Holy Week.

Or maybe it's more like a test -- the same way Jesus was tested by Satan during his time in the wilderness. Except instead of fasting for forty days and turning down the opportunity to rule the world, most people just give up eating chocolate or stop playing video games.

Either way, it's an interesting challenge. Can you give up something that you really enjoy for forty days?

This year, I was thinking about what I might give up for Lent -- kind of as an exercise in self-discipline. I tried to come up with something that would actually feel like a sacrifice. Problem is, I've already given up a lot of things, and I'm kind of down to the bare essentials.

One of the most common things that believers will give up for Lent is meat -- sometimes that means all animal flesh, and sometimes it just means red meat. I gave up eating red meat about twenty-five years ago, and except for a few occasions, I haven't had any since. Another common sacrifice is to give up dairy foods. I gave up dairy around the same time I gave up red meat. I haven't had a milkshake since the 80's.

And I really love milkshakes.

I've never been a coffee drinker or a cigarette smoker, so I can't give those up. Once upon a time, I dabbled in the use of so-called "recreational drugs," but that was, as they say, a long time ago in a a galaxy far, far away.

Several years ago, I went on a rather extreme diet, during which I gave up sugar, wheat, alcohol, processed foods and anything carbonated, fermented or containing yeast. That's a lot of stuff. I stayed on that diet for two years. Every once in a while, as a tune-up, I go on a modified version the diet. Last month, just for kicks, I gave up sugar and alcohol for 28 days.

Back when I decided to quit my paralegal job, I had to give up a few things as well. Like paychecks. And security. And going out to dinner. Or the movies. Or traveling. Or buying new clothes. Health insurance. Haircuts.

I feel like I've given up other things, too. Things that a lot of people take for granted. I never really had a career, never bought a house, never got married, never had kids. I guess I traded those things for the freedom to do what I want. I never really planned it that way -- I always figured I could have it all.

Sometimes I feel like I may have given up too much.

So maybe, in my own personal belief system, self-denial isn't really something I need to focus on. Instead, maybe I should spend the forty days of Lent coming up with ways to make my life more fulfilling. Maybe for me, the Lenten Season should be more about 'letting go' than 'giving up.' Like letting go of the notion that I have to punish myself for my lack of success as a writer by denying myself some of the basic necessities of life. Maybe it's time to 'give up' feeling like a failure.

I'm not saying it's gonna be easy. Just yesterday I went to Target to buy myself some new socks and underwear, as my current supply is sadly tattered and threadbare. And even though they weren't technically on sale, I did spend about twenty minutes comparing prices to determine which 'value pack' was the better deal. Some habits die hard.

Not that I want to start spoiling myself with extravagant luxury items like fancy designer boxer shorts. I just think it's a good idea to take a break from constantly worrying about whether I "deserve" something and maybe just do it without trying to rationalize or justify everything.

For example, I want a new pair of running shoes, but have been putting off buying them because the really good ones are so expensive. On the other hand, since running is good for me, I should go ahead and get them, right? Or is that a justification? Should I get the shoes because I want them or because I deserve them? Maybe I should wait until they are on sale.

This is new territory for me, so I may not get the hang of it right away.

It's a process.

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