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Hooray! It’s Lent!

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March 16, 2011 by wcobserver

By Steven Worden

Some folks eagerly anticipate Mardi Gras:  goofy parades, garish costumes, beads imported from Chinese sweatshops, and of course, high levels of substance abuse.  College students have even been known to beg off from class to go down to New Orleans, as if it were an educational field trip or a study abroad experience.

Other folks oddly anticipate a good old Ash Wednesday:  forehead daubed with a black cross and the somber intoning of, “Remember, oh man, thou are dust and to dust thou shall return.”   Or, the alternate, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”  Not exactly the kind of talk that pumps more money into entertainment districts or draws students from classes.  Don’t expect it to spur sales tax receipts, either.  Nevertheless, there remains a certain severe beauty in the ancient practice, the rhythm of Lent.

C.S. Lewis once observed that human beings love change.  Staleness, routine, “the Same Old, Same Old” weary almost everyone after a while.  But, Lewis argued, novelty, in the sense of newness for the sake of newness, might be something to be wary of as it becomes an end in itself.  Instead, we need a “rhythm.”  The seasons change, the snow melts, the daffodils shoot up, and we make the immemorial shift from feasting to fasting, delighting us with change within continuity.

Lent, whether it is signaled by eating pancakes in England, fireworks and parades in India, the burning of old Christmas trees in Germany, kite-flying in Bermuda, or drinking fruit drinks with ice cream in Mexico, points to a time of self-denial, prayer, and charitable giving in preparation for Easter.

Customarily, Lent involves sacrificing something such as meat, alcohol, or some favorite food.  Sure, like everything, some people will try to skirt the letter of the law.  Apparently, in some areas of Ireland, Wales, Germany and the Arctic, beaver tail has been redefined as “fish” and thus, an acceptable Lenten dish. Supposedly, in Michigan it’s even acceptable to eat muskrat during Lent as it lives in water.

But, muskrat and beavertail connoisseurs aside, this practice of self-denial might actually make a certain sense.   Several social psychologists have argued that self-esteem, or how one feels about oneself, often is most firmly grounded in a sense of self-efficacy or sense of competence in meeting challenges.   Other thinkers such as Albert Ellis would go so far as to argue that cultivating a high tolerance for frustration— honing a child’s skill in deferring Spongebob Squarepants on TV until after math homework—might be the crucial parental gift that could make for a child enjoying a satisfying and successful life, or not.  But, by extension, even adults might use a refresher course in brushing up their ability to tolerate frustration.  This, and the resultant heightened sense of self-esteem, might both result from practicing a small discipline during the forty days of Lent.

More recently some students of Lent have suggested that instead of giving something up, something could be added:  more volunteering, more helping of the poor, more living within our means so as to contribute to a more sustainable and just world. The mindful observation of Lent might just spur us to consider changing to a simpler lifestyle.  A lifestyle that will probably be necessary to reverse the devastation of the world’s forests, the spread of deserts, and the pollution of the earth’s water.  At least, it might be worth a shot this spring.  Here’s hoping that you make a good Lent!

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