This has been quite a week and for many Americans, the effects of unprecedented snowfall in places where snow doesn’t normally fall are going to linger for some time to come. Where there hasn’t been snow, there have been thunderstorms and tornadoes. Extreme weather has taken a heavy toll on us at a time when we already didn’t have much tethering us to reality. We were hitting a collective pandemic wall before all the weather fell on top of us. Our stress systems are frayed and growing uncertainty around health and finances only makes that situation worse.
Remember when we could just hop on a plane in mid-February and spend Mardi Gras or Spring Break somewhere on a warm beach, like Galveston? Oh, wait, Galveston has snow all the way to the water’s edge.
Okay, Southwest Airlines to the rescue. You can catch a flight out of your current hell for as low as $50 each way. Hold it, that rate requires 21-day advance purchase and the only destination where the $50 rate actually applies is St. Louis, which is currently under more snow than they’ll remove before May. So, maybe that won’t work after all.
A lot of the options for mid-winter getaways simply aren’t available to us at the moment and when we’ve already canceled trips and vacations for the past year, our need for a break grows stronger with each passing week. How much longer can we tolerate this seclusion? Even going down to the local pub for socially-distanced drinks with friends grows increasingly difficult as bars and restaurants continue to close.
What’s not helping is that in this new work-from-home (WFH) environment that everyone was sort-of cheering a year ago, we’re working more than ever. WFH has increased our daily work schedule by an average of 2.5 hours per day. So, even if you were one of the lucky ones who was only working 40 hours a week before this mess started, you’re probably working closer to 50 now, and for those in many salaried positions that were demanding long hours before, it’s grown from 60 to 70 hours.
Of course, there are still plenty of people who have no jobs at all or their work is severely curtailed. Many people in the service industry who enjoyed full schedules previously do well to get in 20 hours of work each week now and are struggling to pay bills. When storms hit like they did this week, their schedules get obliterated. People who were already scheduled don’t easily push their services down by a day or two, they’ll put it off a week or more, dramatically reducing what was already fragile income.
As a nation, we are exhausted. We still haven’t recovered from the emotional abuse of last year’s presidential election and now we’re having to deal with a life-threatening cold snap for which many parts of the country are not equipped. We’re not sleeping well. We’re not eating well. For many, relationships have gone down the toilet. Then, extreme weather raises its ugly head and we all get a magnificent pile of snow and subfreezing temperatures. Isn’t life grand? One has to ask how much more of this can we stand?
If I’m totally honest, I never have been one to take a vacation of any kind in February. When I was in the corporate world, February meant fashion weeks, a special kind of hell where one visits the most fantastic cities in the world but is working 18 hours a day so you don’t have time to enjoy them. Since leaving there, I’ve always filled my winter months with special projects that took up time planning and photographing. Taking a break in mid-winter never seemed like a good idea and when it was forced on us this time last year it felt like a massive inconvenience for everyone.
You do remember last year, don’t you? That was when we all thought the coronavirus was something we’d kick with a two-week quarantine. Then it became a four-week quarantine. Then six. Then it was December. Our stubborn refusal to stay home, and our economy’s inability to support us doing so, has brought us to this point where for the past eleven months, we’ve been asked to make ridiculous choices between being safe and staying solvent. If ever there has been a time in modern history where we all needed to take some time off and relax, this is it.
Then, along comes Lent, the 40 days on the Xian liturgical calendar where we’re supposed to give up something between now and Easter. The vast majority of Americans, nearly 80 percent, don’t observe Lent at all. Those who do, tend to use it as a time to improve themselves. They give up smoking, or drinking, or social media. One monastery with which I am familiar is giving up meat for Lent, which isn’t uncommon. A number of Catholic churches sponsor fish fries during this time to encourage that type of behavior.
This year feels different, though. We’ve already given up so much of our lives, what’s left to cut that isn’t going to cause more problems than we already have? One website specifically directed toward women suggests giving up things like anger, worry, and looking in the mirror. Yeah, good luck with that. Another site suggests that things like clutter, single-use plastics, and staying up late are good things to eliminate. Those aren’t bad ideas but can be tough if you’re battling depression. And then, Good Housekeeping, of all places, suggests giving up things like buying lunch, your phone after 8 PM, a half-hour of sleep, or food delivery. But in the middle of a pandemic, and especially if the weather continues to suck, are any of those really viable?
And what if you’re not Xian? What if you’re Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or, naturally, Dudeist? Muslims do fast during Ramadan, but that doesn’t happen this year until April and there are hard-fast rules around its observance. The Hindu observance of Maha Shivarathri comes a little closer on the calendar, starting on March 2 this year. But the Hindu celebration is not nearly as long, only a day among some sects. Vassa or Rain Day is the closest equivalent to Lent in Buddhist traditions, but this year that doesn’t occur until July, and as it relates to the rainy season of the Asian continent, lasts for three months.
If you’re Dudeist, well, the concept of Lent yields is a totally different conversation, but we’ll get to that in a bit. Before we go there, though, I want to consider why Lent, or any of the other observances, is even a thing in the first place. Who came up with the idea of a month-plus of personal sacrifice and are we missing the point? That question is worth answering.
The concept for Lent is built around the passages in the Xian synoptic gospels referencing the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert after being baptized. The event isn’t mentioned in John’s gospel and Mark’s account in chapter 1, verses 12-13 is considerably shorter than what is found in Matthew and Luke. Mark simply says that Jesus was driven to the desert by the Holy Spirit, tempted by Satan, bothered by wild beasts, and ministered to by angels. The other two accounts go into great detail about the precise manner of temptation and that Jesus fasted the entire 40 days. The concept of Lent comes from the fasting aspect of that story. The hope or presumption is that by giving up something, anything, for 40 days, one will come out on the other side more focused and committed.
I’m going to set something out here, though, to challenge that mindset, starting with the story itself. First, a number of religious scholars look at all three accounts as fiction. Who started the tale or why is unknown, but the variances between accounts are too great and the language used portrays too much straight storytelling to have the mark of genuine history. Second, Jesus’ 40 days mirrors that of Moses and Abraham, looking more as a means to source or explain his inspiration. Third, while he was quite possibly in the desert struggling with any number of thoughts and challenges, Luke’s account that Jesus actually spoke directly with the devil is almost certainly a fabrication that would have had far-reaching implications beyond what the story provides. [For more on the criticism of this event, read here.]
The second challenge to the concept of Lent is that there is nothing that suggests Jesus asked or implied that his disciples needed to do the same thing. Instead, what he consistently tells them to do, endlessly, is pray and meditate. Chill. Being a believer was enough of a sacrifice. Making one’s life unnecessarily hard does little more than reduce one’s capacity to act in a manner corresponding to the tenets of one’s faith.
Third, what Jesus is really giving up for that period of time is his own ministry. He took a break. The area around the Jordan River where John the Baptist was doing his thing, was remote and largely uninhabitable. There were no cities or towns. John was having to do his work in secret to avoid arrest and instead of heading back into town as others did, Jesus wanders off and takes time to think, to collect his thoughts, consider the consequences of what he was about to do. When he came back, he was ready to start calling disciples and get started.
It is interesting that contemporary observation of Lent occurs during February, which is generally considered one of the least productive months of the year. This is the time when companies lay out their vision, set goals, and create plans for how they’re going to reach those goals. The big “think-in” of the world’s corporate and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, usually takes place the last week in January for the exact same purpose. Get away. Talk with the “wild beasts” of the corporate world, and come back with a vision for leadership.
If we were to substitute giving up anger or sleep or clutter with spending time away from the rat race, clearing our minds, and making plans, the effects of Lent might actually have some long-lasting benefit for a change. As it is, many people give things up for a couple of weeks then slowly return to their old habits. What’s the point?
Every year, for at least the past 30 years, I get to this point on the calendar and ask, “Why do we do this? Why does anyone do this?” Temporary sacrifice is meaningless if one spends the last 20 days telling every friend at every opportunity how much you can’t wait to go back to doing whatever you gave up. Fasting is pointless if we follow it with eating to the point of sickness. Going meatless loses any meaning if we hit Easter and devour an entire rack of lamb.
And, listen carefully, going on a week’s vacation only to return to the same job doing exactly the same mundane things where your brain is idle for the full eight to ten hours, does nothing more than give you fresh Instagram pics.
If the whole point of Lent, the purpose of interrupting a portion of our lives for more than a month, is to gear ourselves up for something better, something greater, then we’re missing the target. We’re failing to understand the point of any period like this, whether it’s Lent or Ramadan, or Yom Kippur, or Maha Shivarathri, or Vassa if we come out of it all the more desperate for what we couldn’t have. We need time to regenerate, to reconnect with who and what we are, to find the human in our humanity. Without that, there is little difference between our existence and that of well-programmed AI bots.
One of the unstated differences between now and anything happening anywhere 2,000 or more years ago is how our relationship with work has changed. Prior to the industrial revolution, there were craftspeople and tradespeople, tailors and bakers, carpenters and builders, farmers and teachers, artists and musicians, and they all did their own thing on their own schedule. If they needed to close shop for a month to go do something else, then they closed shop and did it. The concept of pilgrimages, such as the one we see in Canterbury Tales, was only possible because one didn’t need to accumulate vacation time before walking all the way from a dismal point A to a crowded point B.
What happened is that with the spread of Imperialism came the concept of a handful of people getting rich off the work of others. 400 years ago, we called it slavery. Then, when that didn’t work, we called it capitalism and introduced the idea of salaries and benefits. Do your work, every day, on time, and you get your check.
The late David Graeber, who sadly died last year, was a professor at the London School of Economics when he coined the phrase “bullshit jobs” and wrote the book by the same name in 2018. He defined a bullshit job as, “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Instead of only working 15 hours a week, as John Maynard Keynes had predicted in 1930, people sit at desks for 40-50 hours a week, attending seminars, or pointless meetings, to fill in the time gap between the 15 hours of actual work that needs to be done and time to go home. Our relationship with work, and as a result our relationship with life, is broken.
In The Tao of the Dude, Oliver Benjamin writes, “It’s no surprise that humans suffer more than any other creature. In making such a sacred institution of labor, we go one step further than other living things—our entire society is founded on flagrantly breaking the second law of thermodynamics, mostly just for the hell of it. The more gratuitously we break the law, the more we are likely to ultimately feel some sort of remorse. No one on their deathbed says ‘I really should have worked more in my life.’”
In the Coen brothers movie, The Big Lebowski, the character of The Dude personifies an almost anarchistic relationship to the concept of a work/life balance. He’s unemployed, sort of, but he still manages to cover rent by the 10th of the month, somehow. He does what he wants when he wants, and he bowls. He’s happy. His landlord, Allan, creates and performs what seems an odd dance production that no one else understands. Slip the rent under the door. He’s happy.
The movie also takes The Dude through his own wilderness of sorts, that of fake millionaires and the social elite of Malibu, a desert void of morality with wild beasts and devils in uniforms looking to line their already-gilded pockets. They both thoroughly reject The Dude’s casualness. He doesn’t need 40 days to figure out that his life is infinitely better staying out of that rat race and going bowling.
Not all work is bad, let’s be clear about that. It is our self-imposed slavery to work without purpose or meaning that we need to give up. We don’t have time here to fully explore the depth of this concept, but there are some quotes I would like you to consider.
Milan Kundera writes in The Farewell Party, “What happens to people who start life each morning with a small shock of alarm from their so aptly named alarm clock? Every day they become a little more conditioned to violence, and a little less accustomed to delight. Believe me, people’s characteristics are decided by their mornings.”
Ellen Goodman writes, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for—in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”
And then, picking up on a conversation by D. E. Pohren in The Art of Flamenco, he writes, “That they have no ambition, that they refuse to work?!! And you consider these failings? Hombre, don’t you realize that this ‘ambition’ that you praise is the greatest motivating evil the world has known. One must have principles or ambition, as these two forces are instinctive enemies and are constantly at each other’s throats. Woe on the man who has both, for he will have a raging turmoil inside his person. For ambition, in the modern sense of the word, is the desire to ‘get ahead,’ and it is a rare man who can ‘get ahead’ without sacrificing his integrity and his principles. And this other thing that you consider a fault: the refusal to work in some hated job that the payo [non-gypsy] takes merely to make money, or gain prestige, or ‘get ahead’ or what have you. This rejection of work is the greatest of gypsy virtues!”
Understand, not everyone is enslaved by their work. Some people love what they do and feel that their lives are fine the way they are. Not everyone needs to wander through a desert. Not everyone needs an epiphany. If you’re one of those people who are comfortable where you are, that’s fantastic! We celebrate you!
But for the millions of people who are celebrating Lent by giving up something superficial like diet soda while mindlessly going through the same 9-5 routine day after dreary day, let me encourage you to make a break and run to the desert, whatever form that might be for you. No, it’s not easy giving up what we think is financial security, but if you use the next 40 days, or any 40 days, to explore what genuinely motivates you, whether it’s leisure or helping others or doing something for which you have a unique talent, then do it! At the end of the 40 days, consider whether you can do this for the rest of your life. It may take some planning and possibly some help, nothing wrong with either of those. What’s important is that you give up what’s keeping you down. Give up something big and make a real, lasting difference in your life.
Let me leave you with these words:
May the days that beckon the journey open a space
between what is and what will be,
a space of emptiness waiting to be filled.
May the things that sit at the edge of revelation
move silently into that emptiness.
May they be noticed with attention and claimed as gifts,
celebrated by friends and congratulated by colleagues.
When the gifts have been offered and received,
may you be filled with gratitude
For having the bravery to embrace the journey,
And give away the things holding you back.