Is Lent for the Weak?

Is Lent for the Weak? February 23, 2012

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Brian S. had a couple of questions after reading my post yesterday about my plans for Lent. He wrote:

I disagree, or at any rate don’t feel that you’ve demonstrated that sufficiently. I could make the argument, as you almost do, that “getting one over on someone” is a natural human feeling, and you’re finding a healthy outlet for it. Or I could argue that what you’re feeling isn’t a sense of having outfoxed someone, but rather just a misinterpretation of your pleasure at getting something for nothing – since it’s often the case that doing that does involve taking advantage of something, you’ve been conditioned to associate the two implicitly.

Also, I see no reason why giving anything up for Lent is meaningful. Presumably you don’t find religious value in Lent. Are you giving things up because “that’s what some other folks are doing during Lent”? (That’s not a good reason to do things, generally.) Or is it just an excuse to give something up that you feel you ought to give up? (If so, you should give it up regardless, and should question why you need excuses to make sensible life decisions. However, I still feel that giving up free food is NOT a sensible life decision.)

I’ll take the second part first.  I’m doing this specificallyfor Lent mostly because it’s easier for me to make a commitment and stick to it when I’m making it in some kind of structured way.  I hate exercising and I’ve never managed to stick with it until I got the 200 sit-ups and 100 push-ups apps.  The entire structure of those programs are available online, so I could have tried to follow along on my own, but making a little ritual out of using the app and watching the graphs grow keeps me on track.

That big dip is when I switched from doing push-ups off the side of a table to doing kneeling ones on the floor. Eventually, I’ll be able to switch to real pushups, presumably.

You could argue it would be ideal to be able to keep up an exercise regime out of sheer grit and determination, but I don’t know that I buy that.  It wouldn’t be better for me to exercise without music on, simple because it was less palatable.  The good I’m pursuing is the continued health of my physical body, not a love of exercise, so it’s reasonable to exploit my brain’s feedback loops to stay motivated.

Similarly, it’s easier for me to pause and think about what I need to change and how when a lot of my friends are all doing the same thing for a specific period.  Since I graduated from college, there’s a lot less structure to my year.  Work goes on year round, without any of the cycle of midterms and finals.  And, thanks to modernity, even the temperature doesn’t shift that much season to season (except in my bedroom, where there is no heat).  I like that my vicarious experience of the liturgical calendar gives a little structure to my life.  Lent is a lot more structured than New Year’s Resolution season, and it’s easier to make a commitment and see how you change when you’ve got a deadline.

Ultimately, I couldn’t disagree more with Brian’s comment that Lent is a shameful crutch and that “[Y]ou should give it up regardless, and should question why you need excuses to make sensible life decisions.”  There’s nothing wrong with outsmarting yourself.  The brain evolution has given me doesn’t always function well.  If you want to break habits, or lay down new ones, you’re trying to subvert the circuits you’ve already got.  Whether you rely on stickk, or Lent, or try and make a go at Skinner-style conditioning, the important think is that you’ve made a choice to remake yourself.

Ultimately, when it comes to character reformation, the goal goes a little beyond training yourself to respond appropriately to stimuli.  The goal is to both do the good thing and to want to do it because it is good.  If you figure out a way to make it easier to switch to doing the right thing, you’re doing it because you’ve already decided you want to do the good thing.  So sure, Lent is for the weak, but we’re all deficient in this way; we do what we do not want to do and hate what we do.  Using Lent to smooth the change is like using training wheels on a bike; eventually, I hope my will is reformed enough to hold to the good regardless of the season.

Part two of my answer to Brian, about why I chose this discipline, is now up.

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  • Lukas

    I’ve been using stickk to keep away from cigarettes… each week, if I smoke, 200 bucks goes to fund the Bill Clinton Presidential library.

    Another non-religious benefit of fasts: abstaining from a pleasure heightens the experience of that pleasure when we return to it. I think this would be true even if we don’t have self control issues. People enjoy anticipation, and having a season of anticipatory fasting is a way of heightening the enjoyment of the feast. Also, I’ve seen some stuff saying that going without food for periods can help with insulin regulation.

    Of course, then there is Christian fasting…

  • Brian S

    I like the response – very practical. I guess my question would be less “Why structure?” and more “Why LENT?” But I guess it’s easier to stick to a goal if you have a community watching, and to that end it’s easier to say “I’m doing it for Lent even though I don’t feel a religious need to do so” than to say “Hey guys, I’m giving something up for a period of time, please help me monitor myself for the next month!”

    Eagerly awaiting your response to Part 1.

  • So you’re usually using the language of neurology/rationalism/etc., and then in the final paragraph you bust out the language of Pauline espistles. Fascinating. I’m not sure many would necessarily notice, either, since you merge them so seemlessly. (Well, “will” isn’t really either–that’s good old Western philosophy there. But still.)

    More to the point with Lent (which I why I tend to prefer it to New Year’s Resolutions) is that the time limit allows you to experiment. Let’s say you don’t know whether a behaviour modification will work or will be beneficial. The 40-odd days thing allows you to give it a trial run for a long enough time that it should be a good indicator of its overall success; because there’s a clear end-point, you will be less tempted to give it up, if the beginning is rocky, before it has a chance to work. And if at the end of the season it doesn’t work, then you can likely be sure that it won’t work after more attempts.

    You could do this at any point in the year, of course, but during Lent you have a support group (if you know people participating in Lent). That helps you get started, too.

    For experiments like Leah’s, the time limit is even more to the point, of course, since this isn’t supposed to be a permenant exercise anyway, and if the proprietors of the cupcake shop ask about the absense of talent-free cupcake exchanges, saying you’re observing Lent is usually an insult-free rationalization.

    • leahlibresco

      Glad you noticed that reference! I hope some of your Lenten sonnets will turn up on your blog. Petrarchan or Shakespearean or both?

      • Ah, I’d forgotten I’d mentioned that here. I guess I’d better be disciplined enough to do them. I was thinking of making a separate blog for them, actually. If you go to my sidebar, you’ll see a link to Lenten Sonnets. A colleague and friend of mine wrote those last year.

        • Oh, and Shakespearean. ALWAYS Shakespearean.

  • HBanan

    I think it’s smart. You like the free food, but want to change your attitude toward it. Fasting is a traditional method used worldwide to put the material world in its place and to get control of our attitudes toward material goods. I hope that after the Lenten season is up, you can go to free food events with a renewed spirit. Most religions have a fairly realistic grasp of human motivations and actions, having been developed by said humans for millenia, so I think it’s fairly intelligent to use their practices. Transformation of the will and of the psyche is difficult; that’s why students are told, not just to will themselves into being cosmopolitan, but to actually go abroad.

  • anon22

    From my secular perspective you give something up for lent to prove to yourself that you’re able to do so. It is an exercise in willpower and gives you self confidence if you succeed. It is not meant for permanent lifestyle changes. That’s what new year resolutions are for.

  • Paul

    BTW – Lent is not only about “giving something up” (a good discipline in and of itself), but it is also about “. . . prayer . . . [and] reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word” (Episcopal Book of Common Prayer); IOW, one gives something up so as to create more time for prayer and reading God’d Holy Word (among other Lenten disciplines). If you are willing to do one part, are you willing to do the other?

  • Ed

    One thing the religious do well that the non-religious don’t seem to bother with is to build common identity through shared experiences ie rituals. That’s part of why even the non-religious stay involved in churches/religious groups or engage in religious practices. The meaning is, of course, only what any given individual ascribes to it, so for one person, Lent is getting closer to God and another it’s self-improvement and for another it’s just about fitting in and keeping the identity firmly in place. Some of my atheist friends tell me I’m weak for staying involved in a religious group even though I don’t believe. The thing is that I live in a fractured neighborhood. There isn’t a lot of help to be had there at any level and friends are not easy to come by or replace. And, you know, sometimes a guy needs help moving his piano. So yeah, I am weak, but so what? Maybe “lent” is just the price one pays to maintain a friendship.

    • Lukas

      “I am weak, but so what?”

  • Scott de B.

    Don’t New Years resolutions already fulfill this purpose? Why Lent?