The season of Lent has come, and I’ve spent the past weeks watching my more liturgical friends drop off Facebook and refuse beers, chocolate, and Netflix references. This season leaves me feeling guilty, not so much because I’m not giving up anything for Lent, but because I didn’t remember that it was Lent until I saw a friend post “Ash Wednesday” on Facebook. My spiritual calendar has been reduced to social media posts, which I now feel guilty about reading anyway.
To cover this guilt, I search for an obvious thing to give up so that I can feel that I, too, am part of this rhythm of fast and feast that I have missed beneath the insistent drumbeat of the academic calendar. Coffee comes immediately to mind, mostly because I feel guilty for how much I drink it on a daily basis. But even as I settle on this solution, I am aware of how difficult this will be and how I am, somehow, missing the point of this season.
My chief joy in the world at 5:30 am is my steaming French press full of a wakefulness I do not have naturally. I love how coffee makes me feel like I can conquer worlds at the beginning of the day and makes dull afternoons full of possibility. It helps me run faster miles, finish papers close to deadlines, and gives my nervous hands something to do in meetings. I love how it brings people together in coffee shops and huddled around thermal carafes in churches. In undergrad, I used to say that one of my friends had the ministry of coffee because she brewed me large batches of Kona during all-night writing sessions, which allowed me to graduate.
But if I’m honest, I love coffee because it allows me to lie about my limits. I am a perfectionist, and I want to be able to read all the books that are considered good books, write brilliant things, teach in innovative and successful ways, and still have time for a full social life and enough popular culture to appear relevant and interesting. I want to do all these things seemingly without effort, but I have been born into a world of twenty-four hour days and with a mind that can only process information at a certain rate.
In my undergraduate years, I cheated these limits by avoiding sleep. During some semesters this meant one all-nighter per week and three or four hours the other nights, but I told myself this was only for a season and then I would sleep again like a regular person. But when I got to graduate school and observed visions of my possible future life in the young professors working toward tenure, I realized that the vocation I’d chosen was not a season; it was a life. And I needed to choose or create a life that was sustainable.
I usually hear the word “sustainable” in relation to agriculture and environmental policy. But at its core, the word refers to the idea that some resources are limited, and we must live and plan in ways that takes those limits into account. Soil, water, and trees are not the only things that are scarce; my hours and my health are circumscribed as well, and I cannot live as though they are infinite. My body’s need for sleep is part of these limits, and I’ve learned through hard experience that I am a better version of myself when I live within those limits. I realize that there will be seasons of life that require me to sacrifice sleep; if I’m ever blessed with motherhood, I expect that I will rue writing this article as I wake up for midnight feedings. But within the rhythms of life that I can choose and control right now, I need to pick sustainable ones.
Living sustainably for me means being accurate instead of optimistic about how long projects will take, but it also means being honest when my perfectionism is making the job take longer than that estimate. This second step is harder because it means being willing to make sacrifices in quality or in how much else I get done, rather than assuming I just won’t sleep tonight. It means being willing to say “no” to opportunities that seem fun and will probably turn out to be fruitful in some ways because I need time to sleep, too. It means facing the fear of missing out on the front end of decisions rather than the back end, when I’ve already missed something important. Ultimately, it means being honest about the fact that I have limited capabilities that cannot be overcome by refusing to rest.
And because even my human ability to estimate is flawed, living sustainably means leaving margin and quiet space in the rhythms of my life—not only because I may need this time to finish projects that take longer than expected, but also because rest is just as much a good gift from God as coffee is. My soul and mind need moments and whole days of rest, just as my body needs daily sleep to function. The rhythm of weekday and Sabbath is just as important as sunset and sunrise.
In the past when I have given up coffee completely, I did so out of another impulse towards perfection. I wanted to be able to accomplish all my goals without the aid of coffee to prove how much I could do without help. I fell into the extremes of binaries: either coffee was completely good and could be consumed all the time without regard for sleep, or it was completely bad and should be avoided as a liability. My new standard of perfection was absolute abstinence.
In this year’s season of Lent, I have discovered that moderation is one of the most difficult forms of excellence. It requires judgment rather than total abstinence or complete abandon, and perhaps this is why it ranks with justice, wisdom, and courage among the classical virtues. And in one sense, moderation is a proper understanding of rhythm and timing: a good thing (such as coffee) may be moderate at one point in the day and intemperate at another. Rhythm in all its forms is a beautiful type of limit; it binds and limits, yes, but only in the same way that a time signature binds music or the seasons bind the harvest. These limits produce not only useful things but beautiful ones.
This Lent I will not give up coffee absolutely. But I will enjoy it with more moderation and with an ear that’s more attentive to the rhythms of this day, week, and season. And I will do so not because I can accomplish all that I want to accomplish with or without it, but because I choose to submit to these limits and rhythms that bind me. This Lent, I choose to give up my perfectionism and try to dance more honestly to these seasons of work and rest, fast and feast.
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday V)