Ash Wednesday is always a big day for me, a day of purpose and change. I feel like it’s a more natural place than New Year’s Day to reflect on our lives and the resolutions we might want to make. To create lasting change, one must consider the alternatives, prepare and be focused. New Year’s Day, coming at the end of a consumer rush and holiday hangover, doesn’t offer ideal conditions. But this day, an ordinary Wednesday at the tail end of winter, seems like a quieter time, more conducive to thoughtfulness and resolve. And this past week, when I have given myself over to thoughtfulness, my questions about my Lenten practice for this year were resolved.
It is in my nature to stay busy, buoyant and engaged, which is good, because that’s what my life requires. (Funny how it worked out that way, isn’t it?) I like to live life “up high,” not in an altered state, but at an elevated one and I can usually achieve it without even trying, or so I thought until recently.
As I went about my business the past few days, I began to see a pattern emerge. When I was feeling low, I noticed how frequently I used certain crutches to get back to my favored high. To be honest, I have quite a collection.
In his Pensees, 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal defines the human condition with three awful words: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety, which are pretty much the antithesis of how I like to live. Previously, I might have dismissed his observations out of hand, but after watching myself this past week, I think he might be on to something.
As a result, these habits are on the chopping block this Lent.
- My daily Diet Coke
- My almost-daily alcohol intake
- My multi-time-a-day Facebook check
- My weekly novel
- My bi-weekly bargain hunting at Target, Costco and other, mind-numbingly overstocked stores for little things I really don’t need
None of those habits are bad in and of themselves. They aren’t even bad for me, except for maybe the Diet Coke. I don’t have a drinking, or spending problem and I don’t neglect my family in favor of my fictional friends.
Rather, these are the items and actions I use to distract me. When feeling flat, they pick me up, make me smile, and ease the burden of the boredom, inconstancy and anxiety that Pascal named as the reality of our existence. In other words, they keep me from feeling what I don’t want to feel.
As someone on a spiritual journey, I want to get better at recognizing what I feel and facing it, instead of simply turning away. Instead of changing the subject, I want to stick with it for a while and see what happens. Why am I bored in the midst of my busyness? Because writing is solitary work, because I have a routine, because the 20th paper I grade on the psychology of obedience sounds a lot like the 1st and the 5th and the 17th, because life just is a little boring sometimes. What’s making me anxious? Ukraine, health insurance, college tuition, the pain in my lower back, the little roll of stomach fat that settles around my waistband when I sit at my desk, students who don’t turn in their final papers, not knowing what the future holds. What change is on the horizon that I can’t control? Teenage drivers and a college search, future boyfriends and girlfriends and inevitable heartbreaks, a new school for me, an empty nest eventually. In short, everything. Everything changes and I don’t get to be in charge of how it turns out. As you can imagine, there are countless answers for each of the questions, so it’s no surprise that I seek relief in countless ways.
By giving up my favorite “go-to” solutions, I’m trying to skim a little off the top of my wildly successful, distraction scheme and build up my tolerance a little bit. I’m no fool however; I’ve got more tricks up my sleeve. When I want to get out of my own skin and can’t consume something sweet, or fun, I’ll grab a broom, or clean a closet. I’ll pick up Augustine, instead of Austen. I’ll go to the library and borrow things they won’t let me buy, just for the pleasure of walking out with something “new.”
My second tier distractions are infinitely less thrilling than my top choices. While the items on my Lenten “no-no” list pick me up and bring me higher, these other strategies just help me tread water. Their purpose is to distract me enough to make it through a tough moment, but not so much that I want to stay there. My top tier does that far too well.
I imagine that by the end of Lent 2014, my floors will be cleaner and my closets less cluttered. Hopefully, my heart and mind will follow suit.