Many friends are surprised to hear that I have given up certain vices for Lent. They say, “I thought you weren’t religious” or “Uh oh! Don’t tell the other atheists!” and I smile and clarify that while I’m participating in the season of Lent, I’m really just doing it in solidarity with my partner who does observe Lent as a Christian practice.
This isn’t entirely true. I agreed to give up drinking alcohol during Lent because I wanted to be in solidarity with my partner, yes, but also because it’ll save me some money and it’s healthy and a good exercise in discipline. There’s more to it, too. I generally do not drink all that much or all that often, so by some standards, giving up alcohol is an “easy” Lenten practice, and I really should be giving up something that’s more difficult. So why alcohol? When I do drink, it’s always in social situations, either with friends and family or at events where I am meeting people for the first time. I gave up alcohol because this Lent I want to focus on my social relationships, and not drinking will be an active reminder — when I’m in such situations — of my commitments to self-improvement.
I gave up drinking alcohol for Lent because sometimes I worry that it becomes a crutch in social situations with people I don’t know very well. I worry that saying “let’s go out for a drink” keeps us from saying that sometimes what we really want is to be with other people, swap stories and celebrations and fears, to spend time learning about one another and developing deeper, more meaningful relationships. I worry that alcohol is only one of many trappings we use to decorate our relationships until we realize that despite spending so much time together, knowing a lot about a person’s daily habits, we don’t really know them as a person all that well. And I worry that when I do get tipsy, I talk more than I listen.
I’m not saying that alcohol keeps me from being a good friend, or somehow makes relationships and experiences less real, less authentic. But in the spirit of Lent as I understand it, I want to use these few weeks to intentionally direct my attention to the kinds of relationships I want to develop, and to fostering and caring for the ones I have been lucky to cultivate over the years. It isn’t about not drinking alcohol, it’s about being mindful of forging connections and allowing myself to be vulnerable, to be open to new people and new experiences. When I’m out with friends and they’re drinking, I’m not worried that I will stand out, or that I won’t be able to participate, but I’m reminded that there are ways I want to participate and habits I want to work on. Maybe it will remind me to be kinder and more gracious to someone I usually try to dismiss. Maybe it will remind me to make sure that I’m listening more than I’m talking. Maybe it will remind me to be cautious about language and my assumptions.
Giving up something is only part of it — I’m also trying to cultivate new habits. During Lent I’m trying to keep in better touch with friends who live far away, who I was once close to in that day-to-day kind of easy way but have since stopped having regular contact with. Distance doesn’t change our history or our love for one another, but it requires more effort. Letters become sweeping narratives of everything-I’ve-done-in-the-past-4-months, or we stop trying to be caught up on each other’s daily lives and instead only focus on big picture changes. Weddings. Career changes. Graduate school. Loss. As a person who moves around a lot I worry about my inability to keep up with people in different cities and from different stages of life, and I want to take active steps to be better about not only staying in touch, but remaining a friend that someone can laugh with, can turn to. I want my relationships to continue to grow and change as we grow and change, not be stuck in whatever stage we were in when we saw one another every day. This takes work.
I participate in Lent not out of penitence, but as an interior spring cleaning. Despite Lent being a Christian observance, this aspect of it, and my practice of it, is entirely in line with the Secular Humanist ideal of self-improvement. I’m striving to take better care of my relationships, to be a more honest me, and in the process I’m taking more responsibility for my immediate community. When I talk about Secular Humanism, I tend to focus on the community more than the individual, but the truth is that I am a better community member if I’m a more attentive friend, a stronger partner, and a more gracious neighbor. So while it’s easy for me to say I’m not drinking because I gave up alcohol for Lent in solidarity, there’s so much more to it than that. The first step might be taking the time to explain why a Humanist would be observing Lent in the first place.
Image Used with permission from Wikimedia Commons.