Not too long ago, I was talking to a friend about Lent and he commented that he doesn’t generally give up favorite foods and such by way of observance. Although I may be in the running as the world’s least observant person about almost everything, I do try. And I got to wondering why. . . .
It’s not as though it’s a habit I was forced to get into as a child: my family didn't share the practice, and probably thought I was more than a little nuts.
But I think it is about habit. I think I generally do a lot of things without thinking; I think maybe most of us do. But I also know that having a relationship – with my friends, my colleagues, or with God – requires thought. Thoughtfulness. Mindfullness, if I may borrow a word from the remarkable Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. Not the kind of routinized behavior that we repeat over and over again, whether it is accomplishing what we intend or not.
One of the things I learned when I quit smoking several life times ago (before a smoker had to leave the building to have a smoke) is that the act of NOT lighting a cigarette – NOT taking a cigarette from the pack, NOT lighting a match, and NOT putting the match to the end of the cigarette and inhaling – left me a little chunk of time I didn’t quite know how to handle. I had to stop and THINK about it.
And thinking about it often taught me that what I really needed or wanted was not the cigarette but a little break from whatever I was doing. Like most people I started to fill that time with gum and life savers; but I learned quickly that a little walk, a quick call to a friend, even turning my attention to a different task for a while, filled the space and got me past the desire for the cigarette.
I only quit smoking once, but even more importantly I learned the value of giving something up: it makes me think about what I really need when I am about to do what I usually do without thinking. And I am reminded how often what I need is a few deep breaths, a little walk, a quiet moment to remember to “give it up” in our more profound sense.
Some days I completely fail at this discipline. But I try, really try, to pay attention to what STUFF has made me turn to my habitual “easy outs.” And I try, really try, to gather that up at the end of each day and add to my prayers and meditations those issues that are always so much bigger than whether or not I had a pretzel I had planned to forgo.
It’s Ash Wednesday night and I have already collected a little pile of habits not yet broken this Lent, and some much bigger things to think about. I can only wonder what I will learn from them. . . .