Kevin Aschenbrenner discovers the Catholic tradition of observing Lent contains wisdom that is key to breaking bad habits and creating new, positive ones.
Growing up as a Catholic kid, Lent was never my favorite time of year. To start with, it began in February or early March. This is not, generally, a bright and shiny time of the year. It’s gray. It’s cold. You’re more than ready for spring to come. You desperately need some joy and light in your life.
And then Lent arrives on the dreary scene and makes things, well, a whole lot drearier.
In case you need a little Catholic calendar 101, Lent is the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It lasts roughly six weeks, or 40ish days, and is meant to mark the time Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and reflecting, before he began his ministry. During that time, he also fought off attempts by Satan to tempt him and lead him off course before he could even get started. (Here endeth the catechism lesson.)
So, the main thrust of Lent is all about avoiding temptation and focusing inwards. There is fasting. There’s no eating meat on Friday.
And, then there’s the whole ‘giving something up’ thing.
This was the main focus of Lent for me as a kid. Children are generally exempt from fasting, and I really didn’t pay much attention to what we ate on Fridays as long as there was dinner. But the giving something up — that I noticed.
Most Catholic kids I knew gave up candy. That was an easy vice to identify. What kid doesn’t like candy? So, in our family, the kids gave up candy for Lent. The ironic part was that we didn’t really eat a lot of candy in our house when I was growing up. So the whole giving up candy was maybe a moot point – but we still felt it. Even if you don’t usually have something, being told you can’t have it still makes you feel deprived.
As I got older, I stopped giving things up for Lent. I grew up, got focused on other things, and it more and more became something I did as a kid. It had no real bearing on my adult life. Plus there’s that whole deprivation thing. Who wants that?
Lately, though, I’ve been starting to wonder if the early Church founders who came up with the whole Lent thing didn’t have a keen understanding of human behavior. Talk to any personal trainer, dietician, or psychologist and they will tell you that it generally takes about six weeks to create a new habit. And, wow, would you look at that? Lent last six weeks. Just long to create a new habit – or lose an old one.
There’s more to Lent, too, that makes me think those in the early Church were smarter than we give them credit for. Lent incorporates some very modern theories regarding goal setting. During Lent you decide to accomplish a specific, attainable goal (giving something up) in a specific time period (six weeks). Again, this is the generally accepted modern formula for achieving goals. One of the reasons New Year’s resolutions don’t work is that they are generally pretty vague (lose weight) and don’t have a specific time period (sometime this year). With Lent, there’s both a specific task as well as time period. You really can’t beat that.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to try giving something up for Lent this year – with a twist. While I’m trying to curb a bad habit, I’m also going to try and start a new, good habit.
My giving up will involve television. I’m a bit of a TV addict. I watch TV to wind down and de-stress after a long day. It’s mindless diversion, and sometimes I just need that. I don’t think this is necessarily bad, but I’ve noticed lately that TV is my go-to stress reliever on most nights, and it’s getting in the way of my doing other things. And, while in front of the TV, I tend to be a bit of a mindless eater, which is definitely a bad habit. So, for the duration of Lent, I’m going to strictly limit my television watching to just one hour a day. Yeah, no, I’m not going cold turkey. I still need a release valve – just not a crutch.
In the place of television, I’m going to build a new stress-busting habit or two. I have a brand new writing room/library that does not have a television where I’m going to hang out more. I’m going to read, catch up on blogs, and write. This will be where I go to wind down during Lent instead of heading for the default couch. As a side benefit, I’m hoping it curbs the mindless eating. I have no situation-specific habits in my writing room regarding food, and I don’t intend to bring any into the room. No food means no triggers to eat when I’m in that room.
My hope is that this Lent will be more about changing habits than deprivation. I’m sure I’ll miss my regular television shows (but, hey, I’ve got a PVR and will be recording them to watch after Easter), but I’m going to enjoy spending time doing things I don’t normally think about when lured by the easy glow of the TV. I may actually get some articles up on my long-neglected blog, and clear out my Google Reader archive.
In other words, I’m going to use some ancient wisdom to cut down on one very modern habit, and start a few good ones.