December 1, 2023

Dust to Dust II:  Self Portrait

I didn’t post this picture on Ash Wednesday because it looks a little demented. I thought my other self-portrait was more appropriate as a form of religious observance. Now that it is no longer Ash Wednesday, I’m okay with demented. In fact, since I’ve just had a Caffeine Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, demented is entirely appropriate.

This week I’ve been surrounded by people making pronouncements about what they were giving up for Lent. This Lent thing is not just for Catholics anymore. But you see I don’t understand it. That isn’t an invitation to explain it to me. It’s not like I’ve never been told or even that I’m incapable of putting the concept into words. It’s just that I don’t have a personal comfort level with the Lenten observance of a nature that inspires me to go around giving stuff up for it. This was not part of my religious upbringing. In fact, I think my childhood church believed that if it had the potential to be pleasurable it should be given up all the time, not just for a few weeks.

Still, I watch others make their vows with interest. Diet Coke, Facebook, chocolate, etc. I try to think of something to give up that would be meaningful in some way, and I draw a blank. I want to give up email, but that’s impossible considering it is the source of my livelihood as well as the bane of my existence. I should perhaps give up coffee, but I can’t afford the withdrawal illness that would ensue. I think about giving up chocolate or Diet Coke, but those aren’t daily habits. I might consume them often, but I could go without them and not notice.

So while I admire others for making a vow, for finding meaningful ways to practice self-discipline and faith, I’ve chosen not to participate. Don’t take it personally, Lent. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions either.

I think I’m particularly shy of making a religious claim I’m likely not to see through. I thought at one time the most meaningful thing I could do would be to give up time, the idea being that I would have 30 minutes a day or so of silence (no Internet, no TV, no books, no grading) just to sit in quiet contemplation. The day I thought up the idea I went to bed around midnight after working non-stop all day. I don’t have thirty minutes a day for silence, and I’ve conditioned myself so to multitasking that I don’t know if I could do it. Even my drives to work are not silent. That’s when I listen to my book club books. If I gave up listening and driving, I’d have to quit the book club, and since I’m the coordinator, I would find that difficult to maneuver.

So I’ve got nothing.

I started to write a post once about the concept of perfection being unattainable. Daniel Pink talked about this in Drive. He said that different personalities look at this reality in different ways. Some think “perfection is unattainable, so I might as well not try.” Others think “perfection is unattainable, but if I put everything I have into the effort, I can keep getting closer and closer.”

I could cite any number of instances in which I’ve seen people take one approach or the other, but I also think no one responds to every aspect of life in the same way. I might be a “keep trying regardless” person in some areas and a “don’t bother” person in others. I’ve set myself the task of writing every day for no other reason than to challenge myself to improve. I take the same approach to learning new technologies and rethinking teaching strategies. No one ever gets it exactly right, I think, so the important thing is to keep trying and trying and trying.

But for Lent? No. If I can’t do it right, I don’t want to try. This is probably due to the harshness of my religious upbringing. We were of the make-one-mistake-go-straight-to-Hell variety of believers. If you grow up like that and you aren’t a drug addict by the time you are 20, you’ve had a narrow escape. Religion imposed on children in the form of threats is nothing more than psychological abuse. It offers nothing to sustain. It engenders no appreciation of God as Love.

Unfortunately, I’ve known more people than not in my life who approached religion as a series of threats.

So while I admire the effort I see people putting into Lent–the enhanced mindfulness of it–I can’t bring myself to make a religious promise I might not be able to keep. I imagine myself picking up a Hershey’s kiss and eating it before I remembered that’s what I gave up. If I don’t have time to even sit still for thirty minutes a day, I know I don’t have time to process that level of guilt. Godspeed to those of you who are doing it.

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