Self-mortification — i.e. self-denial — during Lent has lost favor big time in our culture.
When I was growing up, lots of people talked about what they were giving up for Lent. Chocolate, as I remember, was the number one choice. Maybe the choice these days should be screen time. The website eMarketer reports the average American adult spends 3 hours and 43 minutes a day on their mobile device.
But I have another proposal: How about giving up comfort for the 40 days following next Wednesday? I don’t mean living in constant misery until Easter, but enough discomfort to make progress in your spiritual rehab.
Lent, when you think about it, is meant to be like the rehab we have to do after our surgeries. You know the drill. After a knee replacement, you have to go to PT where they push you to do things that are outside your comfort zone.
“I know that hurts,” says the 25-year-old therapist who is bending my knee at angles not meant for human beings.
What I think to myself but never say out loud is, “Sweetheart, you are one-third my age and you do not know how badly what you’re doing hurts!”
One reason I don’t say anything is because I know if I want to recover, three times a week I need to bend my body in ways that hurt. And I trust that the therapist is not doing what she’s doing to my body in order to cause me pain. I trust that the pain she’s causing is part of my rehabilitation.
So here we are at the end of Black History Month — in which we’ve heard the diagnosis — and Ash Wednesday, a day at the beginning of a spiritual season devoted to repentance. And by repentance, I mean going through a process of spiritual rehab in which I let go of what is unhealthy and exercise spiritual muscles that have become flabby.
And that goes for my Black and Brown neighbors as well as those who are white. People of color might be less guilty of racism than whites, but I’ve learned from my Black friends that they have their own issues.
Jesse Jackson, for example, used to open the program at his Operation Breadbasket 50 years ago with a call and response that went: “I am; I am; Somebody; Somebody.” Call it self-loathing or low self-esteem or whatever you want, but most of my Black friends have gone through and are still going through a process of “repenting,” i.e. letting go of one direction in life, turning around and heading in another.
Relapses will happen, and then they reconnect with the process and continue the journey.
One of my Black neighbors used to run a youth mentoring program in which one of his main goals was to get kids to not think of themselves as victims. You see the distinction? They were victims, but to mature they had to get out of the bondage of thinking of themselves in that way.
So if we’ve been paying attention at all during this Black History Month, we are aware of the diagnosis. We’re aware that we are suffering from a disease with symptoms like racism and polarization, and that the way to health is to do spiritual rehab in which we do uncomfortable exercises for the sake healing.
For liberals — and that’s what most of us in this town are — getting out of our comfort zones might mean reading something by a conservative. I don’t mean the crazies on the extreme right but thoughtful conservatives like George Will, Bret Stephens and Charles Krauthammer, all of whom have won Pulitzer prizes.
For white folks, and that’s what most of us are, it might mean going to a restaurant in the Austin neighborhood like MacArthur’s or Ruby’s Soul Food or Splyt/N/Half Kitchen. It might mean going to church one Sunday at Hope Tabernacle or Mount Moriah or Engage or Living Word.
As many of you know, I belong to a Thai church. In that culture I’m never completely comfortable or “at home,” but I keep going because the discomfort I feel sometimes is spiritually analogous to the physical discomfort I feel working out at the Roos Center. It’s not comfortable per se, but it’s good for me.
To be clear, discomfort is not in itself a sign that an activity is healthy. That’s why I don’t live at the Roos. I work out maybe three times a week.
So I’m not talking about going off screen 100%. But really, three and a half hours a day?! What I’m suggesting is more like leaving comfort zones maybe three times a week — just during the 40 days of Lent for starters — leaving the phone at home for two hours when you go shopping. You can always check your messages when you get home.
There’s a certain comfort in playing the victim. But you may remain stuck, and you don’t have to take the responsibility for changing.
There’s a certain comfort in wearing the mantle of white superiority. Whenever you feel a twinge of conscience, you can respond by saying to yourself and to the population cohort in which you self-segregate, “It’s not my fault that their ancestors were slaves. That was then, and this is now. I’m not responsible for what those people suffer today and certainly not for millions in Afghanistan who are in danger of starving.”
One perhaps unintended consequence of Black History Month is a pull of conscience, i.e. to leave our comfort zones and engage in the messy struggles of people less privileged than we are. One of the intended consequences of Ash Wednesday and Lent is to force us into the uncomfortable pursuit of honest self-reflection and taking some responsibly for our neighbors, no matter where they happen to live.