By Ellen Painter Dollar
This Lent, after a difficult winter marked by bitter cold, too much snow, and taxing medical treatments, I just couldn’t bring myself to give up any of the things—sweets, novels, coffee, Law and Order reruns—that offer bright spots of pleasure in the midst of long days dominated by frantic activity on behalf of other people, especially my three children. So as Lent approached this year, I wasn’t sure what to do for a Lenten discipline.
One day, worn out by my children’s daily litany of wants (I want you to buy my favorite yogurts! I want the dress in this catalog! I want another Zhu Zhu pet! I want a play date with so-and-so! I want Mom to put me to bed tonight!), I suggested we banish the phrase “I want” from our conversations during Lent. The goal, I explained, was to spend less energy thinking about what we don’t have and more being grateful for what we do. I framed this as a family discipline, but really, I saw it as a way to get my kids to stop driving me crazy with their endless pleas for more, more, more. Having practiced conscious gratitude for many years (prayers of thanksgiving are the only prayers I say daily, without fail and with enthusiasm), I didn’t expect our Lenten discipline to be particularly enriching for me, beyond its potential to make me less annoyed with my children.
Did it work? Are my children less focused on what they want and more grateful for what they have? Not really. They learned to discipline their speech a bit. They would start saying, “I want…” and cut themselves off. They also figured out ways to get off on technicalities. They still circled favorite clothes in the Justice catalog, for example, even if they didn’t voice their desires out loud.
But I, who instigated this discipline primarily to teach my children something, ended up learning something myself. (You could see that coming, couldn’t you?)
Our banning of “I want” forced me to pay attention to how often I uttered that phrase, usually to myself (since in a family dominated by children’s needs, let’s face it, Mom’s wants don’t get much air time). Sometimes, my wants were material—new clothes, a faster computer, a remodeled kitchen, a clean floor that doesn’t grab at my shoes with its constellation of sticky spills. But I noticed how often, instead of wishing for things, I was wishing for a different, healthier body: “I want to wear my favorite jeans that have become a bit too tight for comfort,” “I want to be stronger,” “I want to feel better about my body,” “I want to take a walk without getting so winded.”
I have a physical disability that has left visible abnormalities—scars, crookedness, a limp. But I seldom thought things like, “I want to not have scars any more,” “I want to walk without a limp,” or “I want to be healed.” Rather, my wants were focused on traits I could actually change—strength, endurance, weight, muscle tone.
I decided to stop wanting and start doing. Midway through Lent, I started waking up at 4:15 on weekdays, with the help of our cat, for whom this is a favorite time to be outside hunting critters (there is no snooze button on a cat who is sitting my chest and staring into my face). Rising so early is not easy, particularly because I’m tuckered out by around 7 p.m., when I still have homework to supervise and children to bathe. But the benefits are worth the effort. I exercise using a workout DVD for 30 to 40 minutes, then have a cup of coffee and check my e-mail before my children get up—all of which makes me a much more cheerful mother than when I’m woken from a sound sleep by someone whining that they can’t find their favorite pants.
I also added additional exercise later in the morning—a walk or swim—two or three days a week, and started tracking my calorie intake on the free web site LoseIt.com. I have only lost a couple of pounds so far. But, dare I say it, my unintentional, unanticipated Lenten discipline of exercising regularly and tracking my diet are changes that are here to stay. Easter has come and gone, but I’m still getting up at 4:15 to exercise most days. When I don’t, I regret it, because I feel more sluggish. I love the slight soreness I have in my muscles almost all the time now, because it reminds me that I’m getting stronger. I love wearing yoga pants and tank tops not just because they’re cute and comfortable, but because I’m actually exercising in them. I love trading tips on exercise and athletic shoes with able-bodied friends. I love seeing the calorie counter on LoseIt.com lop off 200 calories when I log an hour of exercise.
So thanks to my unplanned Lent disciplines, I’m getting stronger and (slowly) thinner. But what about God? Is it fair to even call these efforts Lenten disciplines? Or are they really more about self-improvement than a richer relationship with God?
I would be fooling myself (and lying to you) if I said my newfound enthusiasm for healthier living is untainted by covetousness, competitiveness, and a desire for accolades. I want to look like those other moms who can wear a clingy tank top without looking like a female version of the Michelin man. I want acquaintances who haven’t seen me in a while to exclaim, “Wow! You look terrific!”
But it’s not all about me and my selfish wants. My newfound enthusiasm for exercise and healthier eating reminds me that my body is one of God’s gifts that I am obligated to care for well. I am more closely following life’s underlying rhythm of work followed by rest and back to work again—a rhythm manifest in the world God created with its bright, busy days and dark, quiet nights. Collapsing into bed to watch Law and Order is way more satisfying, and much less guilt-inducing, after a day spent using and caring for my body well than after a day of couch-potatohood and mindless snacking. And as someone for whom a daily prayer practice has always been elusive, I find that walking and swimming provide excellent opportunities to pray without distraction (as long as I leave the iPod at home).
We live in a culture that often makes idols of healthy living, perfect bodies, and blameless diets. Just as laziness and gluttony do, devotion to healthy living carries some spiritual pitfalls, such as the temptation toward self-sufficiency and the fallacy that I can be in complete control of my life’s trajectory. No matter how hard I exercise or how well I eat, I am still mortal. A healthy lifestyle may lower the risk of sickness or death from heart disease, diabetes, or certain cancers, but I could still get hit by a bus.
Yet given how my unintentional Lenten discipline bubbled up when I wasn’t looking for it, and how it is helping me better care for the gift of my body and equipping me to fulfill my vocations as mother and writer with greater strength, focus, and energy, I’m going to trust that it came from God. Lent is over, and I’m still excited to get out of bed early each morning (OK, maybe not excited…willing?) so I can work toward getting stronger and using my God-given body, flaws and all, more fully. This Lent discipline—the one I wasn’t looking for, the one I started halfway through the season instead of on Ash Wednesday—may end up being the one that sticks.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work focuses on faith, parenthood and disability. She is writing a book on the ethics and theology of reproductive technology, genetic screening and disability, and she blogs at Choices That Matter and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense.