“No, we’re not Catholic,” we tell our friends, “but, it’s true, we often observe Lent.” Some people think this is kind of nuts. Admittedly, it seems odd, but I was reading this article on the science of self denial by Jeffrey Kluger of Time today and I feel like it offered some insight into why the observance of holidays like Lent can be beneficial for those of both the religious and secular persuasions (and to some degree explains why we have taken to observing it ourselves.) It was about how this season is not only one of spiritual penance, piety, and submission but also one which leads to the development of impulse control and, ultimately, can lead to greater self confidence and even increased happiness. Kluger writes:
When it comes to good-time holidays, Lent does not rank very high. Nor do Ramadan or Yom Kippur, of course, and no wonder. They are all about saying no to something (or many things) you love. Where's the egg nog and holiday joy in all that? But we observe these less-than-festive celebrations all the same -- and we have good reason to do so. There are hidden benefits to so much ritualized self-denial...Lent has traditionally been a time of penance and abstention, a time to contemplate the sufferings and temptations of Christ as he fasted for forty days in the wilderness. Historically, this was a time when certain Christians removed all animal flesh, dairy and eggs from their diets and gave renewed focus to prayer and charity.
Neither Ryan or I grew up observing this kind of asceticism, but there’s something about the Lenten season that has always appealed to us. It’s the focus on temperance and self sacrifice and the turning inward toward contemplation and stillness that just seems appropriate for this time of year. (Also, my willpower could really use a whole season dedicated to its strengthening any time.)
Every time an observer of Lent craves -- and resists the lure of -- a forbidden indulgence is a tiny reminder of a commitment made... Neurologists and behavioral psychologists generally think of willpower as what's known as "domain general," which means that the more you practice it to control one behavior -- say, overeating -- the more it starts to apply itself to other parts of your life like exercising more or drinking less...
Additionally, there’s something in knowing that there is a whole community of folks out there struggling to strengthen their will with me. Through the experience of abstention, I think, we all come to foster gratitude for the plenty that we regularly enjoy. With our modern culture’s tendency toward overindulgence, many of us live in varying states of excess, almost always giving in to our impulses. We’re quite attached to food, drink, media, comfort, pretty things and modern conveniences of every kind. It’s easy to forget that all over the world (and even in our own local communities) people struggle just to survive. Giving a vice or a pleasure up by choice, it seems to me, helps to strengthen something within us and also connects us, in a small way, to the greater community in which we live.
For the children in our lives (who are forever living in a world of imitation), I think the Lenten mood helps cultivate a feeling of reverence and gratitude as well. Who doesn't need more of that, right? Despite religious affiliations (or lack thereof), maybe it's not so strange that folks embrace this season of sacrifice and all it has to offer.
"Happy Lent" surely isn't the proper salutation here but... I'd like to wish that the spirit of this season rests untroubled in your hearts. Happy renunciation to all?