I don’t celebrate Lent every year; my feeling about spiritual practices is that you practice things you need to work on and let the rest go. So there have been years that I really couldn’t figure out what to give up until three or four days into Lent; there have also been years when I gave something up a week or two early. This year was a little different (something was chosen for me), which got me to thinking about all the things I have given up over the years.
This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever given up. I normally don’t have a sweet tooth (and when I do it’s generally a sign that I’m about to get sick), but I have yet to meet a chocolate that I didn’t like. Chocolate-covered pretzels are surprisingly good (chocolate and salt are natural partners), chocolate mints (Andes, for example, or Peppermint Patties—taste the sensation, indeed) are beyond delight, and any kind of dark chocolate is the ultimate in chocolate satisfaction. I’m not a fan of doughnuts, but cover them with chocolate and they get my vote. I always add two or three tablespoons of cocoa powder to my chili, because chocolate and chiles have a natural affinity for one another as well. (Read the book Chocolat or see the movie to find our more about this.)
Here’s the irony: I rarely have chocolate more than once or twice in a month. But when I decided to give up even that meager amount, I absolutely craved it. I would wake up thinking about chocolate. Clearly, I had a deeper relationship with chocolate than I had realized.
Here’s the kicker, though: the day after Easter, I bought a bar of dark chocolate. I ate exactly half of it and suddenly felt satisfied. A week late I finished it off. And that was it. I had imagined some Augustus Gloop experience, but it was not forthcoming. But since then, I’ve always held chocolate in a higher regard. It’s not a bit more special, a bit more sacred, I whenever I eat it now, I always pause for a bit to remind myself of that.
I love beer, and one of my lifelong goals has been to learn to brew my own, along with making my own wine and cheese, growing my own mushrooms, and keeping bees. I guess I have a fairly medieval outlook on life. Although my tastes in beer are fairly pedestrian, I always enjoy finishing off the week with a brew or two, something I start to look forward to on Wednesday.
It’s not a lot, but it’s a ritual that’s regular as clockwork. I look forward to it, I enjoy it, and I appreciate the little bit of release that it gives me. It should be a sacrifice to give it up, no?
In point of fact, it was amazingly easy to give up. As it turns out, it wasn’t the beer I missed as much as the happy-hour environment. I replace that (and the huge order of chicken nachos) with an hour of walking, which I soon started doing on other days of the week. By the time Lent was over, I had actually lost a few pounds.
Of course, once Lent was over, I immediately went back to my usual Friday evening happy hour routine. But something was different. As a test, for a few weeks, I gave up the beer and the chicken nachos and had a salad and a diet cola. And you know what? It was okay. As it turns out, it wasn’t about the beer or the nachos; it was about the company—that’s what I was really missing and that was what I had really given up. What I learned is that sometimes you can miss the mark and still hit it, as long as you keep your eyes open.
Salty Snacks in Plastic Bags
A few years ago, I decided to give up any sort of snack that came in a crinkly plastic bag. As it turns out, this covers a wide range of products: pretzels, potato chips, Doritos and Cheetos (and their generic knock-offs), Chex Mix, Funyuns, and a host of other snack that are high in sodium, fat, and flavor, but are otherwise lacking in any nutritional value. (That was long before I read this.)
Like chocolate, I thought this would a difficult one to give up, and it was. As it turns out, I eat these sorts of snacks a lot. A lot as in all-the-time a lot. Any time I stopped at a gas station for something to drink, it was all too easy to pick up a bag of Doritos or potato chips. It seemed that there was always a bag of potato chips or tortilla chips on top of the microwave oven. I noticed that when the Sunday paper arrived, one of the first things I looked for was which snack product was on sale.
If that doesn’t sound like the behavior of an addict, I’m not sure what does. That was not the surprising part, however. It’s one thing, after all, to see myself addicted to these things. But once I started to look, to actually notice things, I saw that everybody had these products in their house. What’s more, if someone else was eating one of these snacks, they would inevitably offer me some. It was easy to refuse once or twice. But a third time? A fourth time? Without announcing some new dietary scheme, it almost seemed suspicious, practically un-American to refuse these snacks.
Are the Stepford snacks? Aalas, probably not. But they are so ubiquitous that they might as well be. Wander around the grocery store and notice how many people have some form of them in their cart. After refusing a second, a third, a fourth time, I finally had to tell them that I had given them for Lent. Only then were people okay with my refusal. But it was still weird.
I still enjoy those snacks to this day, but I view them in a different light. I love Chex Mix, but I only eat my own home-made version, because I can add soy sauce and french-fried onions along with extra peanuts. I eat potato chips, but I avoid the flavored varieties; if I must have something other than a potato-flavored potato chip, I opt for dip (homemade when possible—recipes to follow). I still eat Doritos on rare occasions, but only the ranch-flavored variety, and only in the snack size—these are absolutely delicious dipped in sour cream. Very decadent! But I no longer buy them in a large bag.
(As a side-note, Frito-Lay made pizza-flavored Doritos for a while—the only ones I would still consider buying in large quantities, but that’s because of their similarity to Pizza Spins, about which I will talk about at some point in the future.)
Until this year, this was the hardest thing I’ve every given up. Although raised a good Catholic boy, I admit that I am a bit of a potty mouth.
Truth be told, it wasn’t until college that I learned how to swear properly and it would years before I comfortable with it. The thing about swearing it that it’s a lot like swimming: either you can or you can’t. Despite your protestations that you can “sort of swim”, which the ship sinks you can either make it to shore or you can’t.
I’ve never been completely comfortable about swearing. After all, I was raised as a good Catholic boy (at least until my parents’ divorce) and there has always been something about it that seems disrespectful. I even feel that way after reading about research that suggests people who swear regularly are more honest and more trustworthy than people who don’t. (A lot of that “research” is rather spurious, it turns out.) In some ways, I’m still a still a six-year-old boy about to make his first communion, praying to hell (#irony #profanity) he won’t do it incorrectly and end up in hell.
Still, giving up swearing did teach me a few things:
First, I tended to swear the most when I was excited or stressed in some way. So I could use my propensity to swear as an indicator of my emotional state: the more swearing, the higher emotions, although this was still no indication of whether I was having a good experience or a bad experience.
Second, swearing is extremely nuanced. There are people who use the f-bomb all the time; there are also people who are completely scandalized by its use. “Shucks” is a fairly mild epithet, but there are people who consider it profane (perhaps because in stands for—in their minds, at least—for something else) and those who are completely unaware of its meaning. How profane a certain word is depends to a large extent on your audience and your environment. I can remember being castigated for using the word “darn” (it is, after all, only a euphemism for “damned” or “damn”, so fair enough) but I can also recall one student giving a present to another with the pronouncement “here’s your mother-f***ing Christmas present” with no sense of irony or profanity—but this is when I taught in the inner city.
Third, giving up swearing makes you examine, and change, your own use of language. Language is a bit like cooking. Nouns are merely food stuffs: pork chops, chicken wings, zucchini slices, and verbs are merely cooking methods: boil, fry, bake. In this model, profanity is merely the seasoning: so much salt, so much pepper, a dash of cayenne. If you can’t use salt or pepper or cayenne, how can you make your cooking palatable? By using better main ingredients and getting better at your cooking methods, and by choosing cooking methods more appropriate to the ingredients.
That’s pretty difficult, and if you don’t believe me, then take a look at the differences between a task that is merely difficult, one that is pretty darned difficult, one that is damned difficult, and one that f***ing difficult.
No matter which side of the argument you stand on, I believe you can see my point, unless you are being deliberately obtuse. Swearing kicks things up a notch (or four). It points out where things are different or important. Overuse it and it becomes blunt and dull, and a reflection of the speaker’s character: surely you are more intelligent than that. Underuse it and you risk appearing unsophisticated or a simpleton: only the strength of your convictions will tell you if it is worthwhile to pursue otherwise.
At this point, I realize that everything I’ve discussed so far involves something either going into or coming out my mouth. So before all the would-be Freudians out there accuse me of having an oral fixation, I should mention that one year I also gave up television. Television, it turns out, is all too easy to give up. It was too easy partly because everything on television ends up in reruns (now you can simply buy an entire series on DVD or watch it online for less than half a week’s salary). But it was too easy to mainly because it gave me all sorts of time to read.
In point of fact, there’s a lot of stuff on television that seems vital to our existence, but which turns out not to be. I remember a very early job I had where everybody was obsessed with Seinfeld—it seems all they could talk about the day after a new episode aired was that show. Pity the poor soul who missed that episode and had to sit in ignorance through lunch while everyone else dropped spoilers.
And what has become of all that since then? Precisely nothing. I can recall incidents from the series right now, but other than that, I can imagine nothing about it that is in any way significant to my life. That holds true for almost any television show I have ever seen, except perhaps for MASH. (But then again, that one was an outlier, wasn’t it?)
But there are books that I can remember reading as a child that really meant something to me—books that have long since gone out of print that I haven’t been able to find anywhere, not even online. Those experiences mean much more to me than anything I have ever seen on television.
If there is a point to a spiritual practice, it is that shows you what you need to know, rather than what you want to know. These are only a few of the things I have given up. I have to admit, some years I gave something up just because I felt that I had to give up something, but there’s not much point in giving up going to the movies when you only go there two or three times a year anyway.
And some years I’ve given up things that I knew I wouldn’t be able to give up, not because I thought I would learn anything from actually succeeding in giving them up, but because I thought I could learn something valuable from trying to do something I knew I would fail at; that expecting and anticipating failure could teach me a lot about myself. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.
I’ve never really thought about all of this until this year. Until now, I’ve always chosen what I would give up for Lent. But this year, as Lent approached, something was chosen for me.
This was an entirely different experience for me. As usual, it takes some time to process these things. It may be weeks, months, or even years before I have thought through this experience enough to discuss it. As is true of all spiritual experiences, it can be difficult or impossible to discuss, because the understanding that comes with it may or may not have a rational, literal, component. The best I can tell you is to watch this space.
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