Giving Things Up

I grew up Catholic. And today’s Ash Wednesday.

I had to be told Monday that today was Ash Wednesday, because the rules and rituals I kind of longed for to give me some comforting structure as a kid have lost a lot of their meaning for me now as an adult. I have comforting structure at home inside my loving marriage with J and our family with The Boy. I could make a tired joke here and say I gave up church for Lent. But I kind of did.

Growing up, there was a lot of talk around the beginning of Lent about what you were giving up. Chocolate, soda, caffeine, sweets, red meat, all meat, swearing, eating in restaurants, going to the movies, sex, whatever. Give up something you like that brings you pleasure or comfort or relief. Make a *sacrifice.* I never liked that idea, even though I did give up things for Lent every year until I was out of college. I gave up chocolate one year and on Easter Sunday, I ate an ENTIRE box of chocolate processed snack cakes. Which brings to my second point. (My first one, in case it was too subtle, was that there’s no reason to sacrifice things that bring us comfort and pleasure but don’t really harm us or other people in order to prove something and glorify suffering.)
My second point is the inherent hypocrisy and uselessness in giving something up for a specific amount of time. I mean…I guess in some cases, if you give up smoking or using your phone at the dinner table or something that is infringing on you living your best life (because it IS harming you and/or other people), and you make it 40 days, then maybe that gives you the confidence to continue doing without the harmful thing longer…maybe forever. So in those cases, I guess it’s good and useful. But I don’t personally know anyone who really gave up smoking or watching political pundits who disagreed with them and made them anxious and angry all the time or anything like that for Lent. People usually give up something just inconvenient enough to bitch about, but not really something that would make a real positive difference in their life if they totally gave it up. People usually deny themselves pleasure to create arbitrary suffering. I’m not sure why that is, but that’s been my experience with Lent. And that’s never made sense to me.
There was this Robbie Williams song that came out when I was in college, Millennium, which contains these lyrics:

“…Overdose at Christmas; give it up for Lent…”

I think about that line every Christmas and every Lent. And I just feel like that was me when I was actively participating in religious tradition. I’m sure it’s obviously not all people, but if Robbie Williams wrote it into a song, it’s definitely not just me.
People overdo something pleasurable that is usually mostly if not totally harmless, and then some outside force…popular media…religion…social shame…something outside of themselves…makes them feel guilty and bad about feeling ‘too good,’ so they give it up. For a certain amount of time. Lent is so convenient. 40 days without this thing I love that I feel mostly senseless guilt about loving. That will prove something to…who? Me? Church? Other people?
And then…as soon as Lent is over…a whole box of Ho-Ho’s in one sitting.

Because your time’s up on the giving things up. And it so would have been WORSE for you to dole the Ho-Ho’s out over that same 40 days you did without them than eating them all at one time, right? (Pffffft.)

Anyway, all that’s to say…even my last couple of years practicing Lent in a serious way, I didn’t ‘give things up.’ A retired priest who was a family friend was talking once about ‘doing more’ during Lent instead of giving something up. I liked that idea. Don’t sacrifice my own pleasure and comfort…bring more to other people. Or even to myself. Perform a random act of kindness every day. Put aside a dollar (or more if you can afford it) a day and at the end of Lent, donate it to a charitable cause. Kiss your spouse or hug your kid(s) an extra time every day. Write every day. Walk a(n extra) mile (or more) every day. Say hello to a friend you haven’t heard from in a while every day for 40 days. Do something more for you and/or other people; don’t give yourself less.
I don’t really notice Lent as a season anymore, but I do still like the idea of doing more instead of giving things up. Creating that habit of doing more instead of doing without. Doing something every day to increase the amount of joy and kindness and pleasure and health and comfort in the world sounds like a great plan to me. And if we overdose on kindness at Christmas, we don’t have to give it up for Lent. And if we get so hungry for joy and comfort and kindness over the 40 days of doing more that we want to binge a whole box of it on Easter Sunday…GOOD, right?

I don’t mean to step on religion here. I know religion comforts a lot of people and it is the catalyst for some good in the world, and I’d never try to tear that down. So for anyone who is celebrating and participating in Lent, I hope your chosen sacrifice is meaningful to you. As for me, personally, though…I’m not giving anything up. I’m going to try to do more.


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