Lent and the gift of willpower

Could you give up something you love for 40 days? The Christian tradition of Lent requires you to do just that once a year between the holidays of Ash Wednesday and Easter or Holy Thursday, depending on the denomination, to represent the suffering Jesus went through before he was put on the cross.

During this time, it is said that he fasted for the 40 days and received numerous temptations from the devil.  The season of Lent is typically observed by Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans. Raised in a Catholic home, I was always forced to participate and there was always a disdain for the season buried in my brain. The message that was always given to me was that temptation was a sin and this is how I should teach myself to resist temptation. I personally thought my parents just hated when I played video games.

Is there an angel sitting on your shoulder. Graphic by Katie Gibson.
Is there an angel sitting on your shoulder? Graphic by Katie Gibson.

I have since left my religion and thought I would be free from it all forever, but I turned out to be wrong by my own choice. People always ask me why I still participate in Lent after I’ve declared atheism. It’s essentially for the same reason I still celebrate Christmas and Easter: the moral value of the traditions can be applied to secular worldviews as well. True, as a kid I always hated the idea of giving up something I love for an extended period of time, but now that I grow older I realize the value of it is so much more than just proving to God that you can do it.

The act of abstinence from worldly pleasures is known as asceticism. There are equivalents of this practice in various other religions including Islam, Buddhism and Jainism; either in the form of fasting, or simply embracing a lifestyle free of worldly pleasures. Even as an atheist, I keep the tradition because I take any opportunity I can to better myself and prove to myself that I don’t need the things I think I need. I firmly believe that is something that someone of any creed can adopt and use and isn’t necessarily restricted to the older Christian denominations.

Last year I gave up caffeine for 40 days and it drove me absolutely mad. However, it showed me just how horrible caffeine is for my system and it persuaded me to cut down on it a little bit. The whole point of the tradition is to show you what bad habits and temptations you are subjecting yourself to.

Lent is nothing but a test of willpower so you are able to see your limits and what you can and cannot do without. The tradition also says you are not supposed to eat any meat other than fish on Fridays but that’s a deal breaker for me and most people, particularly on this campus where Chick-Fil-A stares you in the face every time you enter the Bonnie. While the tradition is strictly optional even for believers of the faith, I believe this is one of the things we can take away from religion and still apply it to an increasingly secular world based on pleasure.