The Art of Giving Up

Are you giving up anything for Lent this year ?

The thought may well not have crossed your mind – obviously you might not be a Christian, or even if you are, you might not observe Lent.

Lent, like Christmas, has a more complex origin and history than you might think.

The word Lent comes from the word lengthen, referring to the increasing length of daylight in the Spring. In theory it comprises the 40 days before Easter Sunday, though in practice it always lasts for a few more, as traditionally Sundays are not included as being part of the 40 – church calendars aside, it means the last day before the beginning of Lent is always taken to be Shrove Tuesday: Pancake Day.

Like Christmas, there’s no direct biblical basis for Lent, but most Christians would consider it to be a period of reflection, repentance and self-denial. Historically people undertook some form of fasting over Lent, often by not eating meat, but it’s now more usual to consider giving-up some small vice for Lent, such as chocolate, crisps or alcohol.

There is something attractive about the idea of giving something up that appeals to a wide spectrum of people.

For most of us there is some degree of disconnect between the way we would like to be, and the way we are. We know eating too much is bad for us, but we still do. We know staying up too late is bad for us, but we still do. We know we waste too much time watching TV/surfing the internet, but we still do.

Despite the best intentions we don’t always live-up to being the people we’d like to be.

Why ?

Because we’re human. We’re emotional, not just rational, and struggle with highs and lows of mood and resolve; we’re impulsive – frequently more concerned about enjoying the present moment than about the long-term consequences; and we have limited willpower – psychologists talk about ego-depletion, the idea that our self-control is a finite resource, and once we’ve used it up we inevitably cave-in !

It does us good to strip some of the ‘junk’ from our lives from time to time – a sort of personal defragging. It also doesn’t hurt to exercise our willpower muscles occasionally. Matt Curtis of TED advocates trying something new for 30 days – short enough to be achievable, but long enough to make a difference to our long term habits.

Whether you’re thinking about giving something up for Lent, committing to some other short-term change in your life, in the hope of empowering something more permanent, or (perhaps) just pondering why not everyone is as perfect as you – you might want to ask yourself a few questions before you start:

Why am I giving this particular thing up ? What permanent change do I want to create ? How am I going to motivate myself when I start to run out of willpower ? Should I share what I’m doing with others or keep it private ? How am I going to celebrate when I’m successful ?

This Lent a number of friends of mine are taking part in something called the 6 Item Challenge (Blog Facebook) – only wearing six items of clothing for the whole of Lent (underwear thankfully excluded) !

The Challenge is in support of the organisation Labour Behind the Label, who campaign to draw attention to, and improve the often poor working conditions of those in the developing world who produce the majority of the clothing you’ve got in your wardrobes at home and you’re probably wearing right now.

As well as highlighting the ethical aspects of the global garment trade, they hope to raise money through sponsorship and donations, to support Labour Behind the Label’s work. If you’re looking for a worthy cause to support, minded to have a go yourself, or just pass on messages of support and encouragement, I’m sure they’ll be very pleased to hear from you (especially when they start to smell) !

As well as encouraging fairer, more ethical trade, the challenge also asks us to us to examine our attitudes to material possessions, and our ideas of personal image and sufficiency.

Whether you call it giving something-up for Lent, or spring cleaning – dejunking our lives from time to time might not be too bad an idea, and perhaps our clothes and wardrobes might not be too bad a place to start.

Photo by from The 6 Item Challenge

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