Giving Something Up or Taking on Something New?
Which is better for us and why?
Posted February 26, 2020
Today marks the first day of the Lenten season for Christians. During this holy season, which lasts roughly 40 days beginning with Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter, those of us who celebrate Lent are asked to focus on praying, reading scripture, giving alms, and practicing self-control through fasting.
While the Christian tradition encompasses all of these wonderful actions many of us have come to equate Lent solely with sacrifice in the terms of fasting and forget about the other ways to celebrate.
(It’s no surprise then that the day that immediately precedes the start of the season is Fat Tuesday, a celebratory day where all self-control goes out the window with people feasting and drinking to their heart’s content.)
As a kid, I, (Suzie) too automatically focused on the sacrificial part of the Lenten season. Every year when Ash Wednesday approached, I began thinking about what am I going to give up this year.
For several years in a row, it was The Brady Bunch, one of my favorite shows at the time. Since I watched it every day after school, it was initially a tough habit to break.
However, I succeeded in abstaining from the television program and told myself after the third year it was time to try something new that would be a challenge.
So the following year it was my beloved chocolate – still my favorite treat — that I decided to give up.
It started out okay until the unfortunate “chocolate egg incident.” I remember it like it was yesterday, rather than four decades ago, since it made an indelible impression on me.
One Saturday night I brought my “Cadbury Creme Egg” to bed with me while sleeping over my best friend’s house. I placed it underneath my pillow before nodding off. I intended to wake up sometime after midnight to eat the egg since Sundays are considered days of joy, when fasting isn’t required. It seemed like a good idea until I inadvertently rolled over the egg, crushing it and smearing the chocolate and the yellow cream filling into the white bed linens.
Horrified at the mess I made, I awoke my friend and we tried to wash the sheets before her mother woke up. Unfortunately, my friend’s mom caught us in the act and wasn’t too happy to be awoken at 12:30 a.m. by two nine-year-olds hauling chocolate stained sheets down the hallway. She was incredulous by my explanation.
I still remember her staring at me and fuming. I felt so bad. At least I fessed up it was me, not her daughter who was responsible for the mess.
For a while, I didn’t tell anyone what happened that evening but I continued to think about it. I couldn’t understand how my sacrifice produced any good or helped anyone. Instead, it ended up ruining my best friend’s bedsheets, angering her mother, and evoking lingering guilt in me that I couldn’t quite kick.
After relaying this story to my Mom sometime after the incident, she comforted me and kindly told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to give something up. I could also do something good if I’d like. She said the important thing was not to get so caught up in fasting and losing the entire meaning of Lent.
Instead, she told me to remember to be conscious of spreading good and helping others in any way I can.
For example, she said while I could still give something up if I’d like, I could also choose to help the less fortunate by volunteering or perhaps giving them the money that I save from buying candy. I loved this concept, which immediately resonated with me. A light bulb suddenly went off in my head.
During this time, my Mom gave me my first CRS Rice Bowl, a simple cardboard box that is used for collecting Lenten alms. The donated money supports the work of CRS in about 45 different countries each year. Since its inception, the CRS Rice Bowl has raised $300 million.
This iconic bowl is a staple on the table of Catholic families across the country during Lent. We had one on our kitchen table for as long as I remember. So when our son came home with a Rice Bowl the other day, I smiled thinking back to the first one I had. And about the enlightening conversation with my Mom.
Rather than giving something up like candy, and solely collecting money from others, my son immediately told me he was going to donate his own money to the poor. Wise beyond his years, I was delighted to see that he could avoid some of the pitfalls that I stumbled upon like a crushed Cadbury egg.
I want to emphasize in no way are we disparaging giving things up for Lent or any other time of year for that matter. Giving up beloved items, and bad habits, of course, is certainly a good way to practice self-control.
However, giving things up isn’t the only way to practice self-control. Another way to strengthen our self-control is by putting something new into practice.
Doing something good that takes effort. Creating a new habit, perhaps.
Philosopher William James, considered the grandfather of positive psychology, used to say to do something difficult every day to practice strengthening our will for when we might need it most.
Exerting effort and seeking challenges helps build self-control. Self-control is like a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. And like our physical muscles, there is more than one way to exercise our mental muscles.
So, how about at the start of Lent, or any other time of the year, instead of just giving up something, we try putting something positive into practice that will not only benefit ourselves but will also make a positive difference in the world?
Pileggi Pawelski, S & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.