Friday, February 24, 2012

Why You Need Lent, Even if You're Not Christian

A lot of folks probably know that Tuesday was Mardi Gras. It's long been adopted as a secular excuse to eat green and purple cake and party like a rock star. Big parades, bead throwing and a little flashing, what's not to love? But what about the morning after? I'm sure for some of the same folks that is the more understated, hangover day, best honored kneeling at a porcelain altar, aspirin on standby. But for the religious minded it is Ash Wednesday, or the start of Lent.

If you're not Catholic or Lutheran or Orthodox or any of the other denominations that hold this tradition you might not know that Lent is a ritualized time of sacrifice. That's pretty straight forward, after a bender like Mardi Gras it should be easy logic to at least give up drinking for a while. But can it be something more? I believe that Lent is a tradition that can teach us some powerful lessons if we are willing to take it on.

For now let's forget the religious underpinnings. Many theologies have similar times of restraint, Islam has RamadanBuddhism and Hinduism mark like periods, to name a few. While this similarity could be meer chance, you have to wonder how these vastly different faiths all arrived at the same tradition. Are they on to something?

I believe so. I believe these traditions are widespread because they teach us we can survive difficult times and they provide a framework for deeper personal change by encouraging self control.

Over the last few years evidence has been building for the importance of practice in improving and retaining skills. You might first think of that in terms of playing the piano or throwing a better pass with the ole pigskin. But practice can go even deeper than that. When my son started to play hockey, the very first thing that he was taught was how to fall. Outfitted in helmet and pads to the point he looked like the little brother from A Christmas Story, he took to the ice.

There he was taught to fling himself down over and over and over. Seven years later, not only is my son a better skater, but when the situation calls for it he is also a great faller. When a fall is inevitable he can minimize his chance of injury and get back up faster with well practiced technique.

I can't help but wonder why we don't practice this way for real life? I believe that is exactly what Lent is good for. Think of the suffering caused by our recent economic winter, especially the increase in the suicide rate. We owe it to ourselves to do better. We need to practice! Participating in something like Lent, where we take on the pain of sacrifice within the safe confines of a limited 40 period, and we have the support of a group of like minded others, we teach ourselves that we can make it through hard times. When hardship comes our way, we can respond like Harry Potter casting the Patronus to save Sirius Black. We know we can do it, because we have done it before.

Learning the depth of your own strength is a gift that will keep you resilient when times get tough. Every time you practice it you'll get better and better. But that's not the only thing to be learned from times of Lent. Giving up something you love requires self-control. Current cultural standards under cut the importance of this trait by emphasizing rampant consumerism and an attitude of entitlement. Who hasn't noticed the materialism that has infused Christmas? Lent is the anti-Christmas.

Alone we might not be able to change our culture, but if we have the courage we can change ourselves. I have a book habit, so I've decided I'm going to give up extraneous shopping. No books, no yarn, nothing that isn't essential. Looks like I have work to do because I can feel myself wanting to bargin this out already.

So here's a challenge for you. Sacrifice something. Not too crazy, you do need to eat, and not forever, but say for the next 38 days or so. If you can find a group of like minded folks to join you all the better. You can strengthen your ties supporting each other through this practice of hardship. Just one thing. Can you do it? What will it be? Share your journey with a comment.

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