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Lent - why do we keep punishing ourselves?

13th February 2011

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Is the ancient tradition of Lent moving the same way as Christmas or Easter in the extent to which people are forgetting about its historical origins?

How many people know, for example, that the six Sundays during Lent are traditionally supposed to be a break from the fast –a mini Easter, in anticipation of the actual event? Or that the entire period is in fact supposed to be a time for ‘sorrowful reflection’ (according to Wikipedia), between the death of Jesus and his resurrection?

I certainly didn’t, until I read up on it in said Wikipedia article.

I’m guessing most of us will be depressed not about the death of Jesus Christ (bit deep and heavy for us students to be contemplating, after all) but because our rent has just come out, we’re skint, and the exam timetables have just been published. Revision time is looming ever closer. It’s probably raining too. And since we aren’t fully aware of the rules of Lent, we probably won’t even be able to heal our woes with mountains of chocolate on soggy Sunday afternoons.

A quick survey revealed that my friends are not planning on any ground breaking changes this Ash Wednesday, which this year falls on 9th March. Suggestions include Facebook, procrastination, Greggs, chocolate ...and food, in general.

I love my friends, but since most of them can’t go six days without a Greggs Maple and Pecan Whirl, never mind six weeks, I don’t reckon much for their chances.

Despite the fact that this writer’s 21st falls on Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, I will not be giving up anything. Previous attempts to quit cold turkey have seen me bowing to pressure and indulging in evening chocolate runs and even-higher-than-before levels of procrastination.  Giving up bad habits is hard; it is seen every New Year when we make fitful promises that are broken even before the Christmas tinsel has come down.

So why do we insist on chastising ourselves, again, as soon as we fail to live up to the impossible challenges that we set ourselves at Lent?

A couple of years ago, one of my friends made the decision to give up chocolate, as so many people do. Being an absolute fiend for it, though, meant his decision was much more difficult than it would have been for most people. So for six painful weeks we watched as he resisted his afternoon free-period brownie, then his daily Dairy Milk on the way home from college, and so on. He did it to test his willpower, and to save money, and because he knew chocolate would be his biggest weakness.

Another factor is that he is in fact Christian and believes in the tradition behind the whole process. It is worth noting that a large proportion of people who anti-indulge at Lent don’t appreciate the meaning behind it, and it’s these people’s self-flagellation that I have trouble understanding.

My chocolate addicted friend did manage, despite difficulty, to resist his afternoon brownie –and has repeated his chocolate fast every Lent since. He readily admits that it was very difficult at the time, and that it isn’t getting any easier.

I suppose my message is simple. So, on Ash Wednesday you decide to starve yourself of carbs for forty days, but by Friday evening there is nothing you can think about but the smell of buttery toast. And you’re salivating. Sometimes salad just will not suffice. Unless you have some deep rooted personal challenge to fulfill, I’d give in. We have enough to stress us out at the moment and to add to it, if without good reason, just seems paradoxically narcissistic –at least to me.

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