Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Going Without

The people of today aren’t exactly known for their ability to go without things. Well why would they? Many of us have been told, by television advertisements, magazine articles and store salesmen, that we can have anything we want to. If we don’t have the money, no problem. Just put in on the credit card or get a loan or buy it on an interest free plan.

Instead of being told how to go without, we have a whole heap of people telling us how to get things. Which makes sense, from a sales perspective. You don’t sell too many products by telling people that don’t need or can’t afford what you’re selling. Or that they should save up and come back when they have the money. By the time that happens, they may have changed their mind or found a cheaper or better product.

It wasn’t always that way. The best conversations I ever had about money was with the lady who used to live next door to me. She was 90 and had lived through the depression. There have been many times when I thought I was ‘going without’. But compared to what she told me about her younger days, I was living in luxury.

Today’s idea of ‘going without’ is very different to way people thought of it in the past. Even when we think we’re cutting back to the necessities, we usually have quite a few luxuries that didn’t even exist in days gone by.

Just because something has been invented doesn’t actually mean we need to have it in our lives. (And I must remind myself of that next time my iPod breaks down.) And yet we act like we do. We must have a set-top box and a DVD player and an iPod and a television and a mobile phone, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And because we see these things as necessities, we’re not going to let the fact that we don’t have the money stop us from buying them. Just put it on credit and pay it off later - or not.

There’s a very good reason why I’m saying all this today. Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It is a time to be spent in preparation for Easter. Part of this usually involves some form of self-denial. Traditionally, this meant fasting. But people may give up whatever they choose, from poker machines to television to chocolate.

It’s hard finding something to give up. It shouldn’t be. There are so many things in my life I don’t actually need. Little luxuries here, there and everywhere. I could probably write a list of at least 20 things I could give up. The problem is I don’t want to do without any of them.

But then, if I did want to do without them, it wouldn’t really be self-denial now, would it?

One fasting day that a lot of people do still keep to is Good Friday. I know someone who never went to church, didn’t like any talk of God at all, seemed to squirm when anyone mentioned Christianity, but faithfully abstained from meat on Good Friday. And I heard someone else who wasn’t a church-goer have a very big go at someone for eating a pie on Good Friday.

But then even that form of fasting often isn’t really self-denial. Last Good Friday, I was at my mother’s house. I cooked a fish dish that was probably the best meal I ate all year. Then we had dessert afterwards. I think we may have missed the point.

I have no idea how many Catholics give up something for Lent. Or how many Christians. I’m not even going to guess. But I suspect, of those that do, what they actually give up is not as much as what people used to give up for Lent. Little things, rather than big things. Small sacrifices, rather than an attitude of self-denial and penance.

Perhaps it is harder for us to go without things these days, because we are so used to getting what we want, when we want it. But maybe we need to practice self-denial because of that.

I don’t think any of us are meant to live in a world where we very rarely have to go without things. And I’m not just talking about the fact that we can’t buy a car or go on a holiday. Most people don’t get everything they want. However much money you have, there will always be something you can’t afford.

Instead, I’m talking about the things we are used to. The things that we see as necessities, even though they’re really luxuries. The things that are affordable and either make life easier for us or bring us some enjoyment. The world tells us that we need these things and that we will be happy once we have them.

Happy, maybe. But they won’t actually bring us true joy. Things are just things, when all is said and done. And allowing ourselves a whole heap of luxuries only increases our desire for new ones.

In the end, I decided to give up chocolate. I was telling my son about it and he said that he also wanted to give up chocolate for Lent. That’s a big sacrifice from him. My eldest son is a complete chocoholic. Whenever he gets any kind of treat, if there’s a chocolate version of it, he’ll go with the chocolate. I’ve never seen him choose any kind of milkshake except chocolate or any kind of muffin except chocolate. Anyway, you get the point. I didn’t ask him to give up something for Lent. He chose to do it. And I think, to be perfectly honest, he’s making a far bigger sacrifice than I am. Chocolate means far more to him than it does to me.

But anyway, his reasoning for this was interesting. He said that if he gave up chocolate, Easter would be even better than usual. Because he’d have all this chocolate and he’d really appreciate it because he’d gone without it for so long. It’s not exactly the kind of preparation for Easter that I think Lent is meant to be. Easter is about Jesus, not chocolate. But maybe he has a better understanding of Lent than I do.

I was searching for something to give up and, in the end, chose something that wouldn’t cause me too much pain - which I know is completely the wrong attitude. I wasn’t really thinking at all about how it was a preparation for Easter. There was not much thought given to what I might gain spiritually from self-denial. It was just - well it’s Lent. I should give up something.

I said earlier that I don’t think we’re meant to get everything we want. And I think that’s because it’s when we give up things that we’re more able to receive what God has to give us. And it’s when we go without that we actually gain the most.

(Image details: Detail of painting "The Battle between Carnival and Lent" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559.)

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