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I think it’s fascinating when you stop to consider what people “give up” for Lent. Americans swear off all kinds of things and I was no exception this year. More often than not the things we give up are harmless luxuries or petty vices that we can easily do without. The usual suspects like chocolate, fast food, chewing gum, smoking, alcohol, cursing, etc. seem to make everyone’s list. One year I gave up caffeine, but I really don’t think it made me a better person. All it succeeded in doing was make me very irritable. I wasn’t exactly engaging in solemn spiritual reflection. I was just jonesing.
Why do we do this? What do we accomplish, or hope to accomplish, when we give up something for Lent? More importantly, why do we keep choosing trifles to “sacrifice”? It matters more than we think. But the vast majority of us who give up something for Lent don’t give our decision a second thought. Lent comes and goes every year with all the life changing power of our New Year’s Resolutions.
The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten”, which simply means “spring.” It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It lasts forty days (not counting Sundays) and is intended to represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness to strengthen and purify himself before his ministry in the world began. For Christians, it is intended to be a time of repentance and self-examination as we await the coming of Easter. It is a time of spiritual renewal. It is a time to remember Christ’s sacrifice and if one pauses to consider what Christians believe he gave up for humanity on the cross, abstaining from eating candy bars seems a trifle immaterial if not completely frivolous.
Well, how about “giving up” something that might make a real difference to one personally? Something lasting that actually has meaning other than some painless self-denial. This year, the minister at my church presented our congregation with a far more compelling challenge this Lenten season.
How about giving up hate? How about giving up resentment, mean-spiritedness and bile? How about giving up bitterness? How about giving up anger? Think about that for a minute. Given today’s social and political climate, this is likely a far more difficult and daunting prospect for Americans than simply eschewing soda for a few weeks.
So this year, I gave up something different for Lent. I decided to give up being angry on social media and refrain from political commentary.
Do you know how hard that is? Especially if you’re somebody like me who reads the Washington Post and the New York Times daily, watches MSNBC and CNN whenever possible and generally tries to consume as much news as I can. It usually takes only about thirty seconds for me to become blind with fury at something this bone-headed administration has done, is doing or is trying to do. And usually, I vent that frustration on social media. When I stepped back, I saw that my Facebook feed was filled with politics and fury at Donald Trump. So were the feeds of most of my friends. They tend to be just as angry with the state of our country as I am and it fed my frustration and rage.
And you know what? I found that it wasn’t particularly healthy and furthermore it generally accomplished nothing. Not for me at any rate. I discovered I was one of millions in the choir preaching to millions of others in the choir. I hated anyone who didn’t share my views on Issue “A” or Candidate “B” or just posted an opinion contrary to my own personal orthodoxy. I was paying attention to the commentary on my favorite evening political shows only in the hopes of catching a snarky soundbite to post.
That ended, at least for a while, on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 and what a difference 46 days makes.
The only “current event” I posted about during Lent was the fire that all but consumed Notre-Dame in Paris. Everything from the college admission cheating scandal to the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the failure of Congress to override Trump’s “state of emergency” at the US-Mexico border are things I normally would have spent a lot of time online railing about. And it would have accomplished nothing except making me upset and sick to my stomach.
In choosing to step back from the keyboard for a while, it occurred to me that nothing ever changes just because of social media anger. Everything was, regrettably, just as screwed up on Ash Wednesday as it was on Easter Sunday. The only way things really change is when people vote. And when we are between elections, things change when people march and demonstrate, volunteer, donate and make phone calls. When people give of their time and their talents to make this country the place that it should and needs to be, that’s when the ground starts to shake beneath the White House’s feet.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t wish to imply that people who are politically active online and only post about current affairs are somehow wrong. I didn’t wander into the desert and have a vision that taking a break from political and social commentary is The Way Everybody Should Go. Make no mistake. It’s still important to keep writing. It helps keep people aware of what’s going on and is an important way to make our voices heard. But fundamentally, nothing good ever came from just bellyaching nonstop on social media (unless your last name happens to be Putin) and that became crystal clear for me personally during these few weeks.
I consider myself to be an educated man. I think I know the issues. I’m fairly certain know the candidates. I unquestionably know what’s at stake next November. But in no way does any of that mean I have to angrily broadcast what’s on my mind in all caps to everybody on the planet every chance I get.
During Lent, I continued to read Facebook but through a different lens and it was a joy. I learned some really neat things about my friends. I know a lot of very talented and creative people, full of humor, warmth and compassion. You just have to cut through all the garbage other people post, which can be a Herculean feat on some days. And life became better offline. I rediscovered my love of Stanley Cup playoff hockey. I spent more time on the phone. Not texting…actually on the phone talking with friends instead of just messaging them. I was able to dedicate more of my mental energy to helping my denomination, the United Methodist Church, fight a renewed effort from within the church hierarchy to crack down on gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. You can’t do that on Facebook. When there weren’t constant voices yelling about the issues, I could get more out of what I did read from “traditional” news sources. If you go away from social media for a while and then come back, it becomes really clear how easy it was for Russia to screw with our election process. It sometimes seems that everybody out there is a troll of some kind.
Not being so angry all the time also gave me the ability to focus on the more personal matters that came my way. A childhood friend who lost her husband and just needed to talk. Another who is dealing with the loss of his best friend and his mother in the same week. Trump’s Twitter antics seem really unimportant when you are confronted with things like that.
All of this is not to say I personally won’t get political again on Facebook. Of course I will. I’m me. I just will likely do it a lot less and let The Contrarian Blog do it for me. His job is to be an opinionated prick. Mine is just to try to be a decent person and a good friend.
Online and off.