Wednesday, February 18, 2015

40 Days

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning, for many Christians around the world, of the season of Lent, a forty day period of  "fasting and abstinence."

Don't worry. I may write about an Episcopal priest, but I'm not going to sermonize you.  What fascinates me about Lent - about the idea of a time set apart with discipline and self-denial - is how widespread it is. Ramadan, in Islam. The Hindu festival of Navatri. The Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It seems as if wherever people gather together, they strike upon the idea of doing without. Voluntarily.

Of course, self-discipline and voluntarily doing without is practically the American way. We foreswear gluten, and carbs, and eggs and bad fats. We haul ourselves up on our exercise bikes and treadmills and dutifully put in the miles. While the citizens of France and Germany are enjoying their six-week vacations, we're putting in overtime at the office. Maybe calling our habits voluntary is a misnomer. Instead, it's a lot of cultural expectations and guilt.

Any country that pretty much invents a new eating disorder - orthorexia - has the "fasting" thing down pat. For most people, that's the definition of Lent, and Ramadan, and Yom Kippur. Giving up food, whether it be meat on Fridays or meals between sunrise and sunset. Giving up is another thing we're good at in contemporary America - we give up smoking, and eating animal products and toxic relationships. Sometimes, we're really stupid about the things we give up, like vaccines and privacy.

The problem is, it's too easy to give up things (I'm going to make a broad exception for cigarette smokers.) Lent rolls around and people will say, "I'm giving up chocolate." Or wine. Or tea. (I gave up tea one Lent while in law school and I nearly passed out from caffeine cravings during my Property Class.) The most devastating wits will inform you they are "giving up Lent." That one was old back in the days of the Avignon papacy. 

I don't mean to say that it's easy to stop eating Doritos or drinking beer for forty days - mmmm. Beer and Doritos. Just that when you live in a country where most of us have better food, warmer houses and more stuff than your average 15th century monarch, giving up Hersheys isn't much of a sacrifice.

What we are bad at is doing without. We don't like to do without giant agribusiness, or gas-hogging SUVS, or clothing that's cheap because it's made by people working for twenty-four cents an hour. We don't like to do without 139 channels and pizza delivery guys and really low property and income tax.  We're great at giving up - especially if what we're giving up is guaranteed to make us Lose Weight, Look Years Younger and Get Healthy in 21 Days. (Hint: it won't.)

There's something in human nature that wants to fast and abstain, in these short periods of time when, if you're lucky, self-discipline can work a transformation in you. Imagine what we could transform with a little less giving up and a lot more doing without. Or, to put what it took me nine paragraphs to convey into just two sentences, this is what the prophet says:

             Is not this the fast that I choose:
             to loose the bonds of wickedness,
             to undo the straps of the yoke,
             to let the oppressed go free,
             and to break every yoke?

             Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
             and bring the homeless poor into your house;
             when you see the naked, to cover him,
             and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?


  1. It may be easy to "give up" some food, but when there are so many choices of things to eat it doesn't seem like much of a sacrifice. [Coffee is the exception --- giving it up is a true sacrifice.]
    Several folks we know get together and try to do something extra as a sort of "giving to" rather than "giving up" . . . .

  2. For many Americans, what you say is true, Julia. But for many more of us, giving up is a way of life: do I go without meat this week so I can put gas in the car to get to work? Do I give up dental care this year because my child needs shoes or medication? Do I eat less at each meal so there is more for my children?

  3. How beautifully put. I think this is an incredibly valuable lesson and that we as a cultural definitely don't understand sacrifice. But I also agree with FChurch because I do understand the need to do without in order to provide for others.

  4. I try to live lean on the earth, to consume less, and to compost or recycle everything I can. I do this all year round. I don't believe in religion, so that would never impel me to give up anything-- but science or reason might.

  5. Wonderful, thoughtful post, Julia, appropriate for all seasons, not just Lent.

    We are blinded, sometimes, but how much we have.

  6. Terrific piece, Julia! And I so agree on what we're bad on giving up... we're especially bad on giving up anything if it actually costs something to give it up.

  7. Nothing to add except thank you for these sentiments expressed so well.

  8. Timely, Julia and food for thought if I may say that during Lent. Reading your list of how much we have in the country (except vacation time), I think it might be more meaningful for Americans to take on something during Lent rather than give something up. A charity, a volunteer commitment. Something to make a difference to those who already give up so much on a daily basis - except vacation days.

  9. Julia, I don't know about this. I think, in general, Americans talk a good game about sacrifice, but in reality we don't actually do so well with the concept.

    Check out Facebook, as an example. I have countless friends who profess to want to lose weight, but they keep posting photos and recipes of fatty, calorie-laden dishes, or whinges about how they don't like exercise, or how annoyed they are at "society's" expectations.

    We should sacrifice, but we don't. Even the super poor folk who live in our rental trailers in rural Kentucky smoke more than a pack of cigarettes a day, and they all have cable TV. And then can't pay the rent, which my husband keeps reducing for them because they're so pitiful. Call me skeptical.

  10. Wonderful post, Julia. And FChurch, too true.

  11. A few years ago someone told me she read an article about "giving up" something negative for Lent:

    --give up being quick to judge;
    --give up having a bad attitude towards a person or group of people;
    --give up procrastination;
    --give up some free time to do something for someone else; etc

    I like this interpretation of "giving up", and for me, some of these things are much harder to do than giving up coffee/tea/sweets, etc

  12. I'm not a fan of competitive abstinence; "giving up" is never as rewarding as "doing more." A nice meditative piece. Hot cross buns and fish fries every Friday night during Lent. Could be worse.

  13. FChurch, very true. That's why I tried to qualify my examples by starting out with "most Americans." In fact, my belief is that if the majority of Americans who have a superfluity and the tiny minority who have more than they could possibly consume in a lifetime could "do without, we could have a country where no one ever needs to choose between food and gas or shoes and dental work.

    And, okay, I confess, this WAS a sermon.

  14. Deb Romano, I think I've read this also--I like this approach to Lent--give up pride, for example, and practice humility. Give up a feeling of superiority and practice kindness. Great post today, Julia!

  15. I love this essay and have shared it on Facebook and with the group I meet with at my Episcopal parish. Thank you.

    And, Julia, thank you for your books and two of my favorite fictional characters!

  16. Julia, you can preach to me anytime. If those who have so much were willing to give up just a little, what a difference it could make.

    I like the idea of "doing more" for Lent. (I gave up tea when I was pregnant. NEVER voluntarily doing that again!) I also like the idea of giving up bad emotional habits. If I gave up procrastinating for 40 days, miracles might indeed occur!!

    Great post, Julia!

  17. Deb Roman, that's a lovely idea.

  18. My concept of "fasting" or "giving up" for Lent looks a lot more like Deb Romano's list than, say, giving up chocolate. That's a good way to introduce small children to the idea, but it's not meaningful for adults - especially adults who have so much.

    This year, I'm working on, oh, I'm not sure what you call it. Expectation? That people should be a certain way because I think they should. It only leads me to anger, bitterness, and despondence. And nothing good comes out of that.

    But don't take away my caffeine and chocolate!

  19. Great post Julia! You've really made me stop and think about giving up vs. doing without. The television stations was a great example of what we think we need vs. what we really need, too. My daughter, her husband, and two children get very few channels on their TV, instead watching videos as a family on Friday nights and listening to NPR quite a bit. I find it both amusing and impressive that my five-year-old granddaughter talks about something on NPR. It's not that they can't afford a satellite (they live in the country) or other means of more channels. They have chosen to do without it and are thriving quite nicely. I think about not having access to all the many stations on TV and cringe, even though I don't watch but a handful of them.

    I'm reading G.M. Malliet's latest book, A Demon Summer, that takes place at a nunnery. The resident nuns have no personal property, save the clothes upon their backs and live in a spartan room, and they describe their life a one of joy. Now, they do have a connection with materialism in that they produce and sell goods to the public. In reading the book, I have thought about how freeing it might be not to be attached to possessions, and then I quickly add up the number of possessions I "need." No surprise that the ownership of books would be a real stumbling block for me.

    Julia, thank you for this timely post today, so aptly written. Margaret, I loved your label of competitive abstinence. So many get caught up in that very thing. So much to think about here.

  20. I love this post, Julia. Very thought-provoking. Sometimes I think about our culture as having a mental illness. I try to diagnose what it would be ... Maybe schizophrenia. On the one hand we've got the strict Calvinist ethic: work work work, do better and bigger. On the other hand, we're also massively self-entitled and slothful when it comes to things that you mention.

    Lately I've also been thinking a lot about the positive-thinking movement and how that fits into the puzzle. You CAN have and get everything you want! You CAN be skinny without dieting! You CAN fix all your feelings with pills! You CAN achieve the American Dream if you work hard enough! We ALL have manifest destinies!

    My comment is off point from your post ... Your post got me thinking is all. (Not always a good thing.) :-)

  21. A darned good sermon, too, one Clare might give as a way to build support for a good cause. I like the concept of "giving to" others rather than "giving up" some non-essential treat. A friend is helping with an after-school tutoring program in Ferguson . . . giving that makes a difference. <3

  22. A student explained Ramadan fasting to my World Lit. class once . . . a far stricter fast than any I've attempted, no food OR WATER from dawn to dusk. I asked what one did if medically unable to fast, and he said, give to the poor. That left the question of what a poor and sick person would do. We decided that accepting aid was also a way of giving and observing.

  23. Lent came upon us very soon this year. I wasn't quite finished breaking my New Year's resolutions.

    This post really resonated with me, Julia. Thank you for it. I like Joan's idea of giving TO rather than giving up.

  24. I am Christian (Episcopalian) and my husband is Jewish. I love giving up something for Lent and I do Yom Kippur with him. Yes, I know it makes no difference in the way God loves me, or my relationship with Him, but it makes me mindful of Him. Lent, I think is for us, not God. I've given up sugar, which is a huge issue for me. Our SUVs, I'm keeping!

  25. nice - I enjoyed reading that........

    took me back to growing up, I usually gave up chocolate along with my Daddy - he was also a chocoholic :)

    Growing up Catholic, we never ate meat on Fridays, I cannot remember when the "Church" said we could have meat on Fridays except during Lent. Year round, we pretty much kept up with no meat on Fridays anyhow, Cheese pizza, Pasta with no meat in sauce, fish, meatless soups.

    I looked forward to Friday dinners

    @ FChurch - your post, sadly, is the way many americans do live these days.

    Unemployment at a high, insurance has never been so expensive, along with food cost, gas etc

    With my husband getting laid off, we will lose our health insurance, I have checked in to what it is going to cost us and about fainted

    in 2 weeks he has surgery for cancer, which with the grace of God and his surgeon, they will get all the cancer and not need chemo........

    but when you lose your income and insurance, as so many have in recent years, we've been giving up things as if Lent is year round

  26. FChurch, I am so sorry to hear of your troubles. We are thinking of you!!