Today is Ash Wednesday,* the day that marks the beginning of Lent for many people of faith around the world. Lent, for those of you who are not bombarded with reminders on social media about it every year, is a religious term referring to the 40 days leading up to Easter. It’s tradition for people to fast for these 40 days in preparation for Easter Sunday.
I had no idea what Lent was until I went to college and got band-wagoned into giving up something trendy each Spring. One year it was desserts. Another, Facebook. My friends gave up coffee or alcohol or carbs. In more recent years, I became suspicious of the benefits of Lent. It seemed like the things people gave up were less about some pursuit of spiritual discipline and more about personal benefits. Lent just seemed like another excuse to diet.
But in the past year I’ve awoken to the power of deprivation to spur personal and artistic growth. I’ve given up one thing each month since last August. Sugar. Coffee. Alcohol. Cussing. The practice started on accident. I did a spending fast because (shocker) I felt like I was spending too much money, and when it was over, I realized there were a lot of other things I consumed in excess and so I just kept going.
Fasting is most commonly known as a spiritual exercise and most religions incorporate it in some way. Muslims practice Ramadan. Hindus set aside certain days every week to fast. Christians fast during Lent. Jewish people fast to celebrate Yom Kippur.
When I started giving up things for set periods of time, I wasn’t doing it for spiritual growth. I was doing it for selfish reasons. I wanted to save money so I stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t want to get addicted to caffeine so I gave up coffee. But what I’ve come to realize is that deprivation automatically forces growth.
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Dan Coleman writes that, “There is perhaps no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse.”
This is an especially essential skill in a first world country where delayed gratification is not a given. In America, you can go your whole life without going without. This is a blessing. But instant gratification can quickly become a burden. When we stuff ourselves with an endless stream of food, entertainment, and material goods, we starve ourselves of the opportunity to want something.
Fasting forces you to be present in your life. Every time you say no to something, you are reminded that you are a rational being, capable of making choices. It’s so easy to glide through our days with our heads down and never look up. My default is to ignore the big picture of my life in favor of getting through another day. Fasting reminds me of the very simple, but entirely remarkable fact that I’m alive.
Sugar, television, expensive clothes, alcohol—all of these things are unessential. Fasting sloughs them off.
If you are feeling stuck or in need of a creative jolt, I invite you to use Lent as an excuse to give something up. If you don’t know where to start, think of the things you do on a daily basis. What do you eat? How do you spend leisure time? Then go with the thing that sounds the most terrifying to be without.
Give up your crutch for the next 40 days. You may be surprised to learn that you are perfectly capable of standing on your own.
*it’s also Valentine’s Day, an irony that gives me endless joy