Last week as we were discussing dinner options I realized we’d missed Mardi Gras. Usually I like to have shrimp and something decadent for dessert. Then it occured to me that if I missed Mardi Gras, then I had about 12 hours to figure out what to give up for Lent. This is a preposterous line of thinking since I am not Christian, and I have not observed Lent in at least 20 years. As for the shrimp, it is just an excuse to indulge in the spirit of the Gulf region, even though the shrimp in this area have never swam in warm water. This is certainly not the first year we have missed Mardi Gras, and frequently I contemplate how I would observe Lent if I chose to do so. In my contemplations I have wondered what Lent is for anyway, and what makes me revisit it every year, even if only for a few moments.

I learned to celebrate Lent at the Methodist youth group. I was not Methodist as a child. In a small town there is one youth group of kids who migrate to their parents’ churches on the appropriate night of the week, so I am not always sure whether a particular way of observing any tradition is Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian or Catholic. Lent, for certain, I learned from a Methodist instructor.

The youth director held an annual Mardi Gras party where we played loud music and danced, performed a talent show and lip sync contest, and ate all the junk food we could stomach. I do not remember the specifics, but at some point we disclosed what we gave up for Lent. It may have been informally, “What are you giving up?” It may have been standing in a circle as part of the communion. Or it may have been one-on-one with the youth director. My sacrifice, like a number of the kids, was usually something like chocolate or junk food. We were allowed to break Lent on Sundays, though often I found excuses to break it during the week. “It came from the health food store and it says ‘All Natural’ on the label, so it must be okay!” The reality is, I was not allowed to eat that much junk food growing up, and when I got old enough to make my own choices I frequently found better things to spend my money on. In other words, it may have felt excruciating, but Lent wasn’t much of a sacrifice. And really, I realize now the practice I learned is about self-care as much as anything.

Forty days of doing without some excess or indulgence, or adding something important that has been neglected, really should be a personal sacrifice, even for the purpose of protecting and healing a small part of oneself. It seems all major religions include some period of personal sacrifice and self-discipline. In recent years while contemplating Lent I have considered practicing something that might look like Ramadan to some. I have wondered whether I have the self-discipline to wake up early enough to make myself a highly nutritious meal before the sun comes up, and fast during the daylight hours, resisting the daily distractions of the world enough to take time out at several points for reflection.

Such time for self-care should be a small sacrifice, not be a big sacrifice, but the rhythm of the day and the demands and tempo of the outside world make it seem impossible. I once tried to live on a siesta schedule to honor my body’s natural circadian rhythm and set aside guaranteed time every day for rest and reflection and a walk, but I could not even get through a week. The phone rings. People need to schedule appointments and do not have the flexibility to avoid the afternoon siesta hours. Classes and meetings start smack in the middle of the afternoon lull the body needs as it tries to pull us into a place of peace and solace for a short time each day. It was an exercise in the insanity of the modern rat race. After that week I wished I could arrange for a sentence of forty days in solitary confinement

Lent, along with other religiously based periods of self-sacrifice, may be about making incremental changes that can eventually lead to bigger lifestyle changes. I view these designated periods as an opportunity to re-set and re-scale one’s lens on the world, which makes celebrating with the indulgences of Mardi Gras especially important. In the end, completing a period of self-sacrifice creates a sense of accomplishment, which can provide the confidence and habits necessary to focus on other goals that are not bound to a fixed time on any calendar and may have other purposes than the intrinsic value of making one small personal change and sticking to it.

Why do I rethink this internal conversation annually, grounded in a religious doctrine I do not believe? Maybe it is simply an opportunity to reflect on some fun memories that occured during a time when life was not very fun. Lent is what I learned and what I know. I am certain that if I grew up with a different tradition other practices would continue to frame my current thinking. In a way Lent has become an extension of New Years goal setting. Lent usually begins about the time enthusiasm is dwindling for something that was new two months ago and can function as a set time for personal check-in and evaluation on decisions and actions that emerged from year-end reflections. Its place on the calendar has become coincidental. Even though I conscientiously choose not to observe Lent, the purpose and tradition is more meaningful to me now that it is not tied to a religious foundation. Religion just provides the guidelines to create the habits that we later need to embed with our personal meaning. Truly, each to our own.

En attendant, laissez les bon temps rouler!

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