A friend of mine lasted four days. Another slipped the day after Ash Wednesday. And I lasted two. As such, I spent most of the fasting season wondering what happened. In short, I didn’t want to think about it and my guess is that for many of us, it’s easier to get swept up into the monotony of life rather than to choose deliberate actions that require conscious thought towards the direction we really want for our lives.
The long answer? I’m not Catholic. Yes, I’m playing the “Protestant” card. I’m just not used to making great sacrifices for God. And yes, I know how horrible that sounds but my faith in God dictates that He already made the ultimate sacrifice. So what’s a fast from sex, junk food, chocolate, and/or alcohol for six and a half weeks, if not a sacrifice? And what’s a sacrifice from me in the face of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?
Yes, I’m kidding but only partially. It’s true that I can make no sacrifice on measure with Christ’s. But knowing that, a spiritual fast isn’t meant to atone for any sins or wrongdoings but to increase my faith and deepen my relationship with God. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier to get through six and a half weeks of a fast when you’re not used to stretching yourself outside of your comfort zone. Forty days are a tall order. It’s like setting a New Year’s Resolution a couple of days before the holiday without making a plan for how the chips will fall. Not entirely impossible but definitely a little foolish.
I didn’t plan to abstain from anything easy, like sex or vegetables, either. I was giving up skipping breakfast. I thought long and hard about the best thing I could give up in order to bring about a new life and I concluded giving up alcohol wasn’t enough. I wanted to eat breakfast within one hour of waking each morning. I wanted to force myself into a good habit. I wanted to do something undeniably good for my physical, spiritual, and mental healthy that would have long-lasting effects on the rest of the day. I had hoped it would keep me more mindful and keep me on the side of making “good” choices.
By the third morning, I stopped caring. I had no thoughts of long-lasting health benefits. I didn’t care about getting so caught up in my morning and afternoon routine that I thoughtless skip the most important meal of the day. Because it was so contrary to what I’d been doing for years, I felt like I spent an extraordinary amount of effort doing something when I felt so at odds with it. Talk about ambivalence. My heart was in it (because my heart is always in weight loss strategies) but my mind just simply did not want to deal. I wasn’t at all prepared for mental heel dragging, for my mind to long to go back to the days where I woke up each morning and didn’t think about how to best care for my body. It wasn’t until a few days before Easter Sunday that I had a revelation. Call me dumb but I’d forgotten that sacrifices by their very nature are supposed to hurt. You’re supposed to feel it. The process of transforming into a more spiritual being grounded in awareness had better be a painful one. Forget that or expect it to not hurt and it’s a no-brainer why we all fall short.
Whether you make a commitment to change for yourself or for God, you can’t decide to just do it and then think nothing of it. Otherwise, you’ll forget and slip back into unconscious living without even realizing what you’ve done. Conscious living takes an enormous about of time, discipline and care. I’ve heard it compared to training to compete in the Olympic games. The goal has to be in front of your mind 100% of the time. The gold medal has to be what you work towards each and everyday, while at the back of your mind is the acknowledgement that failure is not only possible but also okay. I don’t know of any life decision I’ve lived out with the deliberate focus of an Olympian but perhaps that’s why I still bite my fingernails after almost 30 years and why I had my first meal of the day four hours after waking. Nothing about that kind of walk through life is easy. I can’t believe I thought for even one second that it would be.
Sometimes we have to do something drastically different with our days, like eating breakfast or giving up alcohol, to remember what we so often forget: Life is a blessing. Work and bills, family and friends, social calendars and things to do muddy the blessing so much so that it doesn’t even feel like one. But here is one thing we can all agree on despite our divergent religious beliefs — not everyone who went to bed last night woke up this morning. Forcing myself out of habits, good and/or bad, might remind me that today is not just another day to get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. And if cutting out sex, alcohol or meat brings you out of your unconsciousness, then practice fasting. It’ll get you to wake up.