Writer Robert Hughes has these thoughts on the self-denial of the season. Robert Hughes is the author of Running with Walker: A Memoir. He also teaches English at Truman College in Chicago.
While shaving the other morning, I was also, as usual, busy saving the environment. How you might ask? Well, after lathering up my face with shaving cream and hot water, I turned the faucet off and on, off and on to save Lake Michigan. Annoyed at the moral obligation of it all but a little proud of myself for being so virtuous, the whole process reminded me of something. Then it hit me: Lent--more specifically, the Lent of my Catholic childhood in the 1950s.
When I was a kid, Lent meant one thing: giving up stuff for the poor souls in purgatory. Today, I have different motives, but similar experiences.
At eight, giving up something for Lent meant skipping my favorite TV show, “Cheyenne.”
At sixty, I give up David Letterman because staying up that late ruins the next morning for me.
At eight, Lent meant no beloved Butterfinger candy bars --except of course on Sundays, the weekly dietary reprieve. At sixty it means giving up salsa, chips, and beer in the evening--my reason for living--because of the waistline imperative.
At eight, giving up meant the intentional infliction of small annoyances. Sister Mary Beatrix suggested that if we had a tiny pebble in our shoe, we should keep it there and offer up the slight pain for the poor souls in purgatory. At sixty, we follow sanctimonious suggestions for saving the environment. Sheryl Crowe, my favorite example, suggests that we all use just one piece of toilet paper per bathroom visit to save the trees and combat global warming.
At eight giving up was a competitive sport. You could brag to another kid, “I gave up ice cream and cookies and cake for Lent” only to hear: “Oh yeah? I gave up all that plus Kool Aid and pizza.” At sixty the competition runs to fine calculation. The smug assertion, “We never use disposable diapers” might be countered with the smarty-pants rejoinder: “Statistics show that the washing and drying of cloth diapers is marginally more damaging to the atmosphere.”
At eight, resolutions to give up stuff meant goofy excuses: I'll watch “Cheyenne” just this once but I'll skip “Maverick” and “Have Gun Will Travel” next week. At sixty, it means carbon offset doublespeak: “I'll turn up the heat tonight but walk to the grocery store all next week.” It also means flat-out dietary lying: “I'll eat a pint of Ben and Jerry's tonight but I'll skip breakfast and dinner tomorrow.”
Of course all this self-denial can be dismissed as pathetic attempts for the boy and the man to feel like there's some control in life, that micro-efforts affect an unseen macro-world. But one truth remains: serious-minded benign foolishness, however pursued, adds meaning to the game of life. Just ask Sister.