Four Things to Consider Giving Up for Lent This Year

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of the Lenten season of prayer and fasting prior to Easter.  For us Catholics, it’s a day that usually involves our non-Catholic friends and acquaintances reminding us that we have “dirt” on our foreheads.  And it’s also a day on which many of us choose something to ceremonially give up for the next forty days.

In my Catholic elementary, middle, and high school years, I’d trade stories of my Lenten sacrifice with my friends during lunch hour.  Together, we’d compare them like battle scars to see whose commitment was the “worst,” or most difficult to keep, as though it were a competition and the most dedicated Catholic were measured by the most laborious sacrifice.  Chocolate usually emerged as the clear winner, but since that was something I personally didn’t wish to give up, I usually left these conversations feeling like I wasn’t doing enough to wrangle all of Lent’s transformative and preparatory power.

And I think I was onto something.  I was missing the point.  I think my dissatisfaction stemmed from a place of knowing that I wasn’t really making the right sacrifices, that Lent was about more than abstaining from something material for forty days that wasn’t going to contribute much, if anything, to my spiritual growth, anyway.  Sacrifice is still important, but similar to the way that the empty calories of most food-related Lenten fasts don’t satisfy a person to begin with, giving them up for the season clearly wasn’t doing the trick for me, either.

It wasn’t until my college years at USD that I really began to seek a more mature understanding of this season, and started to see it as a tremendous opportunity for growth, rather than a drudgery to merely be endured while I waited for the Easter celebration.        

I’ll admit that Ash Wednesday has always seemed melancholy to me.  “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return”?  Not exactly encouraging words.  

But then I started to think that perhaps Ash Wednesday, in reminding us that we’re mortal beings, is really meant to unite us to Jesus’ own suffering and death mirrored by the Lenten season.  We’re not really supposed to physically die during this period, of course, and we’re not supposed to get pessimistic about our inevitable fate, either, but we are, I think, called to metaphorically die to those parts of ourselves that are no longer live-giving.  To rise anew, on Easter, as the best versions of ourselves that we could possibly be, as people committed to spreading God’s light and love with the world around us.        

To do that, we have to be willing to give up some things.  Some really challenging things that delve deeper than promises to forsake a certain type of food or soft drink or dessert or candy for forty days.  Some things that keep us stagnant on this journey of life.

I want to be careful here to not fall into the same trap I sometimes create for myself with New Year’s Resolutions, which is to say that I want to somehow, suddenly, become a perfect person in the next 40-plus days.  I know that’s not possible.  But no matter where I am on Easter, if I choose to walk through the next forty days with intention, I know I’ll be better than I was when I started.  And that is what I want the Lenten journey to be about for me.  I want it to involve transformation.  I want it to make me new.  

So below, I propose four things to give up for Lent this year that have nothing to do with physical abstention, and everything to do with becoming more fully the person I believe God calls me to be:  

This isn’t the first Lente I’ve said I’ll give these up, and previously, I’ll admit I haven’t experienced much success with this declaration.  Complaining is such a natural, knee-jerk reaction when things aren’t going my way, and for some reason, it always feels so much easier to complain about something when asked how my day is going, than to acknowledge the best or funniest or most interesting part of it.  Not to mention, social media these days is absolutely flooded with complaints: about presidential candidates, about politics, about entertainment and media, about sports, about the weather, about studying, about work… you get the idea.  I don’t know how or why this came to be the societal norm, but it seems to be easier to contribute to it than to be the voice that says, “You know what?  My day is actually going pretty well.  I’m alive.  I’m healthy.  I ate a delicious breakfast and got to play with my dog before going to work, where I was able to make a positive difference, even if just a small one, in another’s life.”  Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, refers to this phenomenon by noting that “it is easy to be heavy, difficult to be light.”  This Lent, I want to be a little more light, and in so doing, bring a little more light into the world.  And exercising gratitude is such a simple way of giving thanks and praise to God for our abundant blessings.

“There are deeds you alone must do.  There are words only you can say.  Trust in Me and do not tremble, for I go with you to show you the way.”  
— Bob Hurd, “Come Unto Me”

I remember sitting in my dorm room after one of my creative writing courses last year, feeling downtrodden because I was convinced that everyone else in the class was a better writer than me.  Their graceful prose, their natural dialogue and character development… I envied them, and felt I couldn’t compare.  Even though I knew, because it had been drilled into me pretty much since birth, that each of us is blessed with different gifts, I think at the time it was something I knew without really knowing (if that even makes sense?), because in that moment of weakness it felt that everyone else’s gifts, while different, were also far superior to mine.  

And then I heard the song I quoted above begin to stream through the speakers on my computer.  About twenty or so years ago, my mom recorded herself singing several Mass songs, and when I was little, I used to play them while I fell asleep at night.  Now I have them on my computer, and while I’m sure it was partly her voice singing to me then that comforted me (since moms always have a way of soothing their distressed children), these words hit me in a profoundly new way that night.  

There are deeds you alone must do.  There are words only you can say.”

Whoa.  Life isn’t about comparing to anyone else, though in the age of social media, I understand it's difficult to avoid doing so.  Life is really about shining your little light as brightly as possible on the rest of the world.  After all, if you don’t perform the deeds you must do, or say the words only you can say… then who will?  The wonderful corollary to this is that you can also assume that wherever you are right now is wherever you need to be to carry out the mission you’ve been entrusted.  And you are the only one who can do it, the only one who can live and love as only you can.  Pretty groundbreaking stuff, if you ask me.  

Trust in the beauty of your own life’s story, and recognize how truly awesome it is that you are the only you that is, has been, or ever will be.  Making good use of that realization is an excellent way to thank God for this gift of life, after all.    

So march forth, and do your thing.  Celebrate the gifts you’ve been given.   

I want to find ways to get more uncomfortable this Lent.  And I’m not referring to physical discomfort.  What I mean is that I want to disturb my comfort zone a little bit more for the sake of making this world a better place.  
  • When I drive past the grizzled homeless person standing on the road median, holding up a cardboard sign pleading for help, instead of double-checking that my car doors are locked, I want the courage to roll down my window and hand him the granola bar in my purse.  
  • When I’m struggling to find ways to be productive on one of my haphazard days off, I want the courage to serve a meal at a soup kitchen, or to volunteer for a few hours at my local Catholic Charities.  
  • When I’d rather stay home yet another night because that’s what the introvert in me is drawn to, I want the courage to reach out and connect with new friends instead.  
  • When I’m already running late and I’m tempted to rush through my errands, I want the courage to engage in a short conversation with the person serving me, to take a few minutes to make feel him or her feel loved and special.  
  • When I’m nervous about applying or interviewing for a job, I want the courage to walk boldly in and do the thing that scares me anyway, to take more risks, knowing that God will be holding my hand every step of the way. 
  • When someone asks me to do a favor for them, I want the selflessness to say “yes,” even though it might be inconvenient for me, instead of the “no” that usually tempts me.
Basically, if something feels uncomfortable for me, but can offer comfort to another individual or improve the quality of my own life, I want to take steps toward doing those things that scare me.  I want the courage to pursue discomfort.  


This one’s especially difficult for me, because I’m a planner.  And I like to know how things are going to unfold.  All the time.  I’m slowly starting to realize, though, that one of the beautiful things about walking with God through this life is learning to trust Him.  Doing my best, trusting God with the rest.  Letting go and letting God.  I realize this is not a goal that will magically come to fruition in forty days, and I know better than to think I won’t worry about anything at all anymore come Easter.  This is a goal I will continue to pursue for the rest of my life, but I want to kickstart it this season.  This prayer by Thomas Merton, a favorite of mine, sums up the way I want to feel about uncertainty so beautifully, so I’ll leave it here to end this post:

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. 
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end. 
Nor do I really know myself, 
and the fact that I think that I am following your will
 does not mean that I am actually doing so. 
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. 
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. 
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. 
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, 
though I may know nothing about it. 
Therefore will I trust you always, 
though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. 
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, 
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Are there any ways you, in particular, like to observe Lent?  Let me know in the comments!   I would love to hear from you.  :)

On Romanticizing the Past

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

“I wish I’d realized then how lucky I was.”

“Those were the good ol' days.”

“Life was so much easier back then!”

Sound familiar?  I know I’d certainly been guilty of uttering one or more statements like these every so often.

And then I read an article by Paul Angone over at, a website that seems to be speaking directly to me on the topic of all of that lovely confusion surrounding the mystifying process of “becoming an adult.”  Paul gets it.  He knows that being a twenty-something is hard.  And he also knows what kinds of changes are important for us to make in our lives, so he crafted this wonderful list of 29 resolutions for us, in particular, to make this year.  And though I’ve mentioned my love-hate relationship with resolutions in a previous post, I have to say that these are meaty and meaningful enough to warrant my commitment to at least a few of them.  Read them below to get inspired:

It was resolution #5 that really resonated with me: 

“No more nostalgia. No more wishing I could go back to some time where I didn’t have any ‘problems’. Nostalgia is a liar. There were always problems. Each season carries with it the good, bad, and the ugly. If I only see the good in every season only after the season is over, then I will never actually see any good.”

Whoa.  That definitely sounds like a wake-up call to me, considering that especially in this foggy period of a post-graduate haze brought on by constant anxiety over discerning my life’s purpose and figuring out if I’m doing this whole thing correctly, I’ve been wont to believe that “things were so much easier back in elementary school/middle school/high school/college.”

But nostalgia is deceptive this way.   In a reality where every opportunity is open to me and it’s a struggle to know whether I’m picking the right ones, I’m admittedly a little bit jealous of the Sarah who, for 22 years, questioned nothing because her life was neatly laid out for her, and the biggest problems and inconveniences she had to endure were a few petty arguments with friends, a couple hours of challenging homework a night, and deciding where she wanted to go to college.  It’s easy to find myself wishing I didn’t have to think or stress or worry about anything major again.

But this is where it’s helpful to remember Paul’s advice.  Every season of life comes with a full measure of joys and struggles.  Maybe I felt carefree in elementary school, but I also lacked the independence to make many of my own choicesExhibit A: one summer, my well-meaning parents signed me up for softball so I could learn the value of becoming a team player.  But due to my hand-eye coordination falling somewhere below zero, I spent the season hiding in right field and wincing every time the ball came near the bat, hoping maybe I’d at least get to go to first base on a “walk,” and maybe my teammates wouldn’t roll their eyes too much at me.  I think it’s safe to say I much prefer now spending my time on pursuits that are of genuine interest to me.

And maybe I long for the simplicity of a junior high and high school homework and social life, but I certainly didn’t see either of those two things as “easy” at the time they were handed to me.  I struggled with crippling perfectionism in middle school, and a constant need to prove myself for a reason I can’t now identify.  And then I was bullied relentlessly for the success in school I experienced because of that.  And of course high school was awkward too, because that’s where I was just generally beginning to figure out who I was becoming, a process that began with forging new friendships and starting to really like boys and wondering what I wanted to do with my life… and never really ends (which no one bothered to tell me at the time)!!

And though I undoubtedly enjoyed myself more in my four years of college than in any of the previous 18, it’s also unfair to classify this as “the time of my life.”  Because, for one thing, college came with its own set of problems, chief among them massive amounts of homework, brutal final exams, and a sometimes overwhelming fear of the future as I began to understand that everything I knew was slowly changing forever (which I realize sounds super dramatic, but is one hundred percent how I felt).  And for another, if college was “the best four years of my life,” then what is there to look forward to now?

I’m not trying to sound cynical with these examples; I just want to be realistic, and to remind you that you’re not being very forgiving of or fair to yourself if you feel like you’re somehow doing worse at life right now than you ever have before.  You’ve always faced struggles.  And you know what?  You’re here right now, reading this, which means you’ve triumphed so far.  It means you’ve got the know-how and the resilience to make it through a lot more.

So bring it on, life.  If there’s one thing reflecting on the past teaches us, it’s that We’ve.  Got.  This.


Winnie's Favorite Game

Monday, February 1, 2016

My sister’s dog, a white toy poodle named Winnie, likes to play a really fun game with us (fun for her, not so much for us).

The rules are quite simple: Winnie slowly and methodically frees every one of the toys we’ve neatly assembled for her in a basket, scattering them around the living room in a haphazard fashion as she does so.  That last bit is important, because she’s supposed to make it as inconvenient as possible for humans to step around them.  Bonus points are awarded every time we trip over something.  

But she doesn’t take all of the toys out of the basket.  Oh, no.  She’s careful to leave at least one each time.  Because the object of the game is to get a human to relent and pull the last toy out of the basket for her, a goal she achieves by staring at it and whining and crying, in spite of my sister’s and my repeated and wearied observations that, “Winnie, you already have every other toy on the floor right now,” as if she can actually understand what we’re saying and reason alone should be enough to get her to stop. 

Why doesn’t she ever want to play with the toys she’s already gotten out?  

I realized, as we watched her the other night, that I’m playing this game, too.  I already have everything (every toy, so to speak) that I could possibly need in this life.  I have a family and close friends who love me, and whom I love deeply.  I have had plenty of opportunities to travel.  I have an abundance of nutritious food to eat, and clean water to drink.  I have my health.  I have a bookshelf full of reading material, and, as an added blessing, I am among the population of people in this world who can even read them to begin with.  I have a beautiful house to live in, and my own means of transportation in a car.  And much more besides. 

And still I am restless.  My anxiety about the future makes me so forward-focused and gives me such tunnel vision, that I, like so many others, fail to notice the goodness already surrounding me.  Like Winnie, who, for a reason I can’t quite puzzle out, feels she can’t be contented as long as one stuffed, squeaky squirrel remains in the toy bin, I fall into the trap of believing, “I’ll be happy when…” instead of deciding to be filled with joy right now.  It seems obvious to me when Winnie is in this pickle to try and persuade her to play with something she’s already strewn about the floor, because even when I finally succumb to her (usually because her cries have become almost operatic in nature), the toy she’s wasted all of her little doggie energy on for five minutes only holds her interest for about that much more time… and then she wants something she already had.  

Though I’m still very young, I have lived long enough to know obtaining something you’ve wanted for a while doesn’t necessarily make you a happier person in the long run.  Sure, it’s gratifying to reach a goal, my heart definitely warms when I receive a present, and it’s thrilling to break out of the norm and take a vacation somewhere, for example.  But while these can certainly amplify short-term happiness… time and again, I’m reminded that the things that bring me the most joy are those precious little ordinary moments or abstract things I already experience often, like a long conversation or a meal shared with a family member or a friend, or  the time I take for myself to write and read.     

But there are also those people and events and things in life that are supposed to be transient, that maybe aren’t meant to be returned to again.  They might only be here for a season, whether it’s a job that pays the bills for now but won’t become a viable career option later, or a current roommate situation, or a friendship that fizzles.  But I want to make it a point to appreciate even these things, to let them be whatever they need to be for me.  It’s okay to look toward the future, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something good to be found in this moment.  So I want to practice not focusing on the future so much at the expense of the present.  I want the presence of mind to realize that this, right now, whatever it is, is pretty special in itself in some way, and I don’t want to be wishing in another ten or twenty years that I had cherished it more because it really was unique and wonderful, while (ironically) not treasuring those later moments because I’m polluting them with too much nostalgia.  

There are a lot of fun toys on the floor already, and I think it’s important to remind myself to play with those first.  Because I know that eventually the “now” will become “back then.”  I’ll put certain moments and chapters of my life away gradually as I finish with them, knowing they’ll wear out or break as the most-loved items always tend to do.  I’ll call them memories and shelve these current experiences when I’m ready to move on and continue to grow.  And then I’ll reach into the basket for something new.  

For now, though, I just want to enjoy.