I backed into my Lent discipline this year. Caroline suggested we give up dessert for Lent as a family, then she changed her mind five days in. As Caroline goes, so go the siblings. But Robert and I stuck with it.
Many of my past Lent disciplines have provided a straight path from practice to benefit:
Giving up Facebook –> more incarnational time with family and friends.
Regular devotional reading –> new insights into the biblical story.
But a dessert fast is more circuitously beneficial, if it’s beneficial at all. I suspect I lost weight much more slowly during Lent than I would have had I not taken on this practice. Sundays were feast days, and while I don’t feel like I feasted all that much, I think my body got very confused and yo-yo’ed a bit.
But Lent disciplines aren’t really about self-improvement, are they? They are deeper than a reboot of the New Year’s resolution. They are about a relationship with God—a connecting with the Holy that is within and without.
Giving something up means acquainting oneself with deprivation and sacrifice, even if the sacrifice is small in the scheme of things. We don’t do enough of that in our culture. In my case, No Dessert was a string tied around my finger, a chance to pause, remember, reflect. Each time I craved something sweet, I tried to think about the sweet things in my life that are always in abundance, things I take for granted. A fantastic spouse. Hugs from children. Dates with friends over coffee. Satisfying work that pays the bills. The chance to write. I also became more mindful about the stuff I was eating. I thought about my body. I thought about what it means to hunger.
I also admit—and I hang my head as I do so—that giving up dessert was hard. Very hard.
I went to a mainline Protestant seminary with predominantly white and economically advantaged people. If you’re familiar with such places, you know that we talked about privilege.
I like to think I am pretty tuned in to my own privilege. But my cravings for cookies and ice cream were enormous and sad and reminded me just how privileged I am. I hungered, strongly and several times a day, for something that is completely superfluous for survival. Sure, sweets make life a little more fun and, well, sweet, but they are not necessary. And yet it’s probably not a big exaggeration to say that I despaired over the lack of them.
I don’t say this to beat myself up. I say this to encourage people to push themselves with their Lent disciplines every so often. This was one of the most interesting, thought-provoking things I’ve done. If I can get so wound up craving dessert, what other wants do I try and turn into needs? To paraphrase the title of that cute little self-help book: what other small stuff am I sweating?
Robert and I broke the fast on Saturday night—OK sue me, I didn’t wait until Easter—while we were cabin-camping with our kids (more on that trip another time). We ate s’mores roasted over the fire, with Special Dark chocolate bars. They were little pillowy sandwiches of joy. The next day, I had bought a small pie at Trader Joe’s that we ate with our Easter picnic, and it was… just OK. Same with the cheap, ubiquitous Easter candy I’d been thinking about for seven weeks. It wasn’t very satisfying.
As it happens, Robert had brought Food Rules with him on our getaway, so I was reading it at the time. Pollan talks in the book about eating the “good” stuff, but doing so less often—this method of indulgence can be more satisfying than submitting to our every craving. Turns out he may be right. I normally adore Reese’s peanut-butter cups and can eat them by the fistful. But the Reese’s egg I pilfered from my kid’s basket wasn’t that great. Whereas the marshmallow, toasted on a stick that Caroline had whittled and assembled into a s’more by my husband, was heavenly.
Image is by Maira Kalman, from the Illustrated Food Rules. “When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.”