I wasn’t raised in a tradition that included Lent, but I remember listening with great interest once to a girl in my class ponder whether she should give up chocolate or all candy or TV or something else for Lent. As she talked, she meticulously pushed the vegetables on her tray to the side as she did every day and ate around them. I suggested maybe she would like to give up vegetables for Lent. She laughed and explained very patiently that you had to give up something you LIKE for Lent. I was just a little kid. What did I know?
As I got older and my circle of friends widened, I was privy to more deliberations as to what would be an appropriate thing to give up for 40 days. Sweets has always been a popular decision among those I know, but there have been a fair share of the smoking and drinking – especially the drinking – decisions. I never really understood why you couldn’t give up something you didn’t like, and the smoking and drinking and sweets decisions muddied the waters for me even more. Were they giving up smoking because they liked it or because they liked it but felt it was bad for them? Were my friends giving up sweets because they liked them or because they didn’t like what they were doing to the hips and waistlines? Were the drinkers giving up alcohol because they liked it or because they weren’t supposed to like it or because they liked it too much? Hmmm….hard to say, but the nagging thought stayed with me that you really could give up something you didn’t like and it might not be a terrible idea.
I made up my own Lenten observances off and on over the years. The first time, I briefly considered giving up those people I didn’t particularly like or who annoyed me. I rationalized that this would make me a more joyful person, and doesn’t the Bible say that God loves a joyful heart or something like that? I ultimately decided that was a terrible idea and moved on to more serious considerations.
Once, I decided to give up an hour a day that I normally spent on other things and use that hour instead to search for people who had a significant impact on my life and to thank them for their time and trouble. I don’t know if it met any church’s criteria for Lent, and it might not have done anything to strengthen my soul or secure a place for me in Heaven, but it still stands out as one of my favorites. It meant something to me, and the people I contacted seemed to appreciate it as well, so I’m gonna go with it.
Normally, I don’t share with anyone what I do or don’t do for Lent. I’m not sure, but I think that’s one of the rules. This year is different because I’m on to something huge, and I think it’s worth sharing, but first a little history: I spent the first half of my life learning how to not let every negative thought that popped into my head fly directly out of my mouth. It seemed as though each time I did, a swat to my bottom followed and I became momentarily airborne. While this free flow of consciousness often worked against me as a child, I think I may have the beginnings of a scientific theory in the works. For example, let Points A and B represent my pre-swat and post-swat coordinates in the room. Let density represent my unwillingness to learn from past swats. Let volume represent my vocal volume in delivering my unfiltered comments/opinions. My scientific theory goes something like this: The distance and frequency with which Donna flew across the room (Point A to Point B) when allowing unfiltered thoughts to fall off her tongue were directly proportionate to her density and volume. As Donna’s density and volume decreased, the frequency and distance of her flights across the room decreased in direct proportion. Final outcome: I learned that I could think anything I wanted, but the phrase “silence is golden” became my mantra.
I learned early on that words can harm; they harmed me and they harmed others, but I made the mistake of believing that thoughts themselves are benign. How wrong I was! Thoughts matter; they matter in a myriad of ways on multiple levels. Consequently, the second half of my life has been spent trying to harness the stream of consciousness in my own head by stopping negative thoughts as soon as I realize I’m thinking them. Stopping them became easy, but the troublesome thing is, they kept coming! I wanted a way to stop them from even entering my head, and that’s where my Lent idea came in.
My idea was to immediately pray for any person I found myself having a negative thought about and then pray for myself as I try to eliminate negative thinking from my life. If we are to pray for those who spitefully use us, who do us harm and who appear to be our enemies, then I figured it was good enough for people who I happened to have negative thoughts about. It seemed like an easy enough Lenten practice for me. After all, I don’t consider myself a negative person, and I’ve spent a good number of years already working on the negative thinking thing. Oh my! How pride doth go before a fall…..
The sad, sad, sad truth is I spent the better part of every day for the first two weeks just praying. I was shocked at myself! I knew I was in for a rough ride when one of my first thoughts was, “Eeeewwwww. I better stop having negative thoughts about her. I sure don’t want to have to pray for her!” I had to pray again, and that meant I had to pray for her twice in as many minutes. But I also had to pray for myself in as many minutes, and honestly, I don’t know what helped more. I’m happy to report that I’m pretty deep into the 40 days now, and my prayers from negative thoughts have decreased incredibly. (By the way, for those of you who are doing the numbers, I’m not taking Sundays off, so I’m going for the full 46). Those troublesome negative thoughts are just not popping up in my head as much as they once did! That leaves me more time to pray other prayers – like those of gratitude for feeling happier and sleeping better.
So, here’s the part that may be huge and is the reason I’m sharing what would otherwise be a very personal experience. What if Lent becomes the new January 1st? Most New Year’s resolutions fall by the wayside by the end of the month anyway. The thought of having to do something new forever is too overwhelming. On the other hand, most of us can do anything for 40 days because we know there’s an endpoint. My experience gives me hope that if I do it for 40 days, then maybe the forever part will take care of itself. I cannot discount the importance of the prayer part, though. I’m big on that and think it may be the secret weapon in successfully navigating the 40 days.
So, whether you are part of a tradition that observes Lent or doesn’t, why not give it a try? If New Year’s resolutions have failed in the past, this may be the perfect way to change some pesky habits or institute some newer, better ones. It might not strengthen your soul or secure a place for you in Heaven, but who knows? It might.