Growing up catholic in Ireland and England I was always told I should give up something for Lent, so that by the time Easter rolled around I would better appreciate the object of my sacrifice.
As a theologically naive kid it didn’t make sense to me; after all, if God had really created everything to show his love for us wouldn’t it be rude to give it up, even if only for a short time!
It also occurred to me that it was fine for Jesus to spend 40 days and nights in the desert surviving only on stale dates, homemade wine (made by himself presumably!) and kosher foie gras - back then life was so hard and grim that giving up one thing wasn’t really a big deal. But for us today, we have so many rich and wonderful foods that it felt like a sin to give them up.
As I got older I saw there was some madness in the system. By using the self-pretense that I was only giving something up for six weeks I was able to break myself of several habits.
I gave up salt on food - before that I was one of those people who liberally dosed everything with salt, even before tasting it - I gave up putting sugar in my tea and coffee. I even gave up alcohol one year, meat another, and caffeine yet another. Happily though, those latter three habits bounced back as ripe as ever on Easter Sunday.
Through the idea of Lenten sacrifice I discovered that making big changes is tough, but breaking them down into smaller, more manageable ones is much easier. By thinking I was just giving up salt for a short time I was able to get through the first couple of weeks when, quite frankly, food tasted bland and flat. Of course, this was England so maybe it was just bland and flat!!
By the time Easter rolled around six weeks later my taste buds had adjusted and I didn’t need salt to flavor foods any more. I still use it on fish and chips - some traditions have to be honored you know - but most of the time I find food tastes delicious without it.
The same happened with sugar. At first tea and coffee were pretty blah without it. But by Easter Sunday they actually tasted pretty darn good, and when I put sugar in them they were unbearably sweet. So I simply quit.
It wasn’t that I set out to quit altogether, just to stop for a while. Sometimes we find that may be all it takes. Just stopping something, for a few weeks or months, is all we need to break us of a habit.
Of course, that is easier said than done. The first few weeks of trying to break a habit are always going to be difficult, particularly for more serious addictions like smoking, but by telling yourself that it’s not forever, just for a while, you can trick yourself through that first period. Then you just keep extending the amount of time you plan on not using the substance and before you know it, you don’t need it anymore.
Even if you never intend permanently giving up the object in question the idea of temporary sacrifice is useful. It can help you cut out candy or cookies or bread or something else if you want to kick start a diet.
It can help you stop eating the seemingly-endless series of birthday cakes and cupcakes at work just because they are there.
It can help you avoid hitting the vending machine at work at 3pm every day just because that’s when the post-lunch munchies hit.
In short, it helps you stop and think. And any time that happens the odds are always greater that you will make a wise decision about what you want to do, and how you want to behave.
And you don’t even have to be catholic to do that. I should know. I gave up being catholic for Lent a few years ago and haven’t bothered with it since.