So, today is the start of Lent in at least the Catholic calendar. I don’t particularly participate in Lent, for a couple of reasons. The first and most trivial one is that I’m in general non-ritualistic, which means that I don’t consider participating in the specific rituals to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious practice. It’s more about the principles and how you act in your every day life that matters to me. And, as a philosopher, I am always willing to debate and consider and argue over just what is required in your every day life, which makes me rather odd indeed when it comes to religion.
But the second one is that one of the biggest components of Lent — giving something up — doesn’t work for me, because there isn’t really anything for me to give up. I could give up playing video games, except that I’ve probably played games for something like 8 hours throughout the entire month of January. I could give up board games, but I’ve already set out games twice in two weeks and then never played them. I could give up reading fiction, but even that is something that I don’t do that often anymore, and is a far better way to spend my free time than the alternatives. I could give up TV, but on weekdays I’m only watching about an hour anyway and could easily give that up, and while weekends would be more difficult it wouldn’t be something that I’d miss that much. I could give up buying lunch, but I’m only buying lunch now because I have to due to my schedule; if I could avoid it, I would.
So, essentially, for me almost everything in my life is done because it is convenient at the time — making it easy to give up — or else because I need to do things that way at that time to make my life work at all. So there’s nothing trivial to give up as proof of my willingness to put aside my wants in service to a greater ideal, which is what I think the main point of that part of Lent is. So while I think that it is good for people to prove to themselves that they can indeed sacrifice their wants for the greater good, it’s not something I can do.
Anyone who is not religious who criticizes Lent, in my opinion, cannot do so on the basis that it is a bad thing to sacrifice your wants for the greater good, as that is a pretty basic principle that any morality ought to contain. All they can do, in my opinion, is criticize the purported end or greater good being espoused, that of, say, worshiping God. But if they could find a suitable cause, they really ought to feel that they would do that, and I would say that regular practice at doing just that is something that everyone ought to try. For me, it’s just nice that my job lets me get in regular practice at denying myself wants like “free time” in order to fulfill my commitments to my work [grin].
But I was musing about addiction today, and thought of another reason why even those who are secular might want to insert a little Lent into their lives. While some things can actually in and of themselves create a physical addiction — the body gets used to it and physically demands it if it isn’t there — pretty much anything can be what I’ll call mentally addictive, which means that you enjoy it so much that you do it a disproportionate amount of the time, and even choose it consistently when you know that you shouldn’t. The easiest way to know that you aren’t mentally addicted to something is to try to go without it for some time. If you can, then you’re fine, but if you can’t, then you have a problem. As a small example, if someone asks you what you’d do if you couldn’t play video games for a month, and you have no idea, it’s probably a good time to see what other things you might want to do in your spare time, because you clearly have put too much emphasis on that one thing.
So a Lent-style focus on giving something up for a number of weeks is a good way to help everyone assess their own lifestyle and see a) if they can go without some things in it and b) see what life is like without those things. This is good for your character and your self-awareness, religious or not. So should anyone laugh at you for giving things up, just remember that giving things up isn’t bad, and that someone who finds the idea of deliberately depriving themselves of pleasure laughable is missing a glorious opportunity to find out about themselves and the world.