A debate; Why do we give up pleasurable experiences for 40 days?
I noticed something that made me curious today, the day before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day).
A debate, on social media, about what to give up for Lent. It struck me as interesting the need to give up something. Lent, traditionally is a period of penance. Penance, making an atonement for a sin, or for having done something regretful.
Is the motivation behind giving up something for 40 days actually primarily about seeking penance for a misdeed?
The debate I hear is not ‘What is it I am sorry to have done so I can reflect on and learn from it’ but ‘Which will I be most successful in giving up; wine, cigarettes, chocolate, cakes or biscuits?’
The difference may seem trivial. I wonder if the difference is actually quite crucial.
- Giving up something we enjoy. Why would we do that? Is it because there is some belief that self-denial is good? What does stopping doing something you enjoy mean to you? Why do you want to stop doing pleasant things? Have you ever given yourself space to reflect on why giving up something is an important act? Perhaps you are asking yourself what is my guiltiest pleasure. What do I feel bad about enjoying (a paradox in itself)? There are some things we feel guilty about doing. We give up things we enjoy because enjoying them makes us feel guilt. It is interesting that we do not address the guilt. Guilt can be two sided, guilt because we have let ourselves down, the values by which we would like to live by, our authenticity, or guilt because of falling short of perceived expectations of society. Does stopping having pleasure remove the guilt?
- Giving up something we enjoy. Why do we do that? An obvious answer, looking at the things most commonly given up, is that it will do us some good. Help us to lose some weight, give our liver a break, a bit of ‘detox’. We give up things that we believe are causing us harm, but there is also a sense we chose things that we will manage to give up for 40 days, avoiding a risk of failure. This is hardly penance! Find me someone who gives up walking to work? There is someone who is challenging themselves, isn’t that more like a penance? Typical Lenten acts do not appear to reflect on a misdemeanor far from it, we find ourselves becoming virtuous, and self-congratulating. Interesting, is this the intention of Lent?
It appears Lent is a period to treat some aspects of the ‘human condition’ the relief of guilt, or possibly an opportunity, which we do not usually indulge in, to pay attention to our health .
Why do we need to do this?
Would it be more helpful to be penitent?
So many questions, and I am not attempting to answer any. Guilt is a universal, existential emotion that pervades our society and has a very significant impact on mental health. It is as if we have responsibility for the cause and suffering of others. We have responsibility for our own actions, and our own self-care; for being authentic to our own standards for living. Creating cycles of enjoyment and self-deprecation, and abstinence is not helpful. We find ourselves not enjoying that which is there for our enjoyment, and preoccupied with worry. Worrying about whether we have the ‘will power’ to abstain from those things we like, but feel guilty for indulging, and to what end? Does this diminish others’ suffering? No. It creates anxiety for ourselves.
As a psychotherapist with a passion for the attunement of mind and body, may I encourage you, this Lent, that rather than give up something, you give yourself permission to enjoy the things you love. But significantly and, whilst being kind to yourself, you notice when the enjoyment isn’t complete and then stop, and wonder why. Pay attention to your body, your emotions, and feelings. Are you properly understanding what they tell you? Are you being authentic?
It is then that seeds might be sown to facilitate giving up habits that are truly not even enjoyable, but have become a false relief for an emotional dissatisfaction. It is useful to notice what emotions you have, acknowledge their pain or joy, not deny them or impulsively satisfy them inappropriately.
Lent clearly serves a purpose in our secular world. Maybe a little reflection on the purpose of our sacrifices will help us grow to be more authentic; true to ourself.