The season of Lent is here. About a quarter of Americans observe Lent, according to Christianity Today, including 61 percent of Catholics and 20 percent of Protestants. Lent lasts 40 days and goes from Ash Wednesday until the Thursday before Easter. It is a time of abstinence, of giving things up — most often foods and luxuries — as a way to shift focus from the secular to the spiritual.

The Christian observance of Lent does not dominate non-Christians in the way that Christmas does, though many religions engage in the ritual of self-denial as do even non-religious adults. In general, religious self-denial is a way to mean business about honoring God and the sacred and recognizing the reality of suffering in life.

This “fasting” — from food or luxuries or worldly activities — balances the magnetic pull of secular life. Ramadan for Muslims is a month-long time of spiritual reflection, improvement and increased devotion. It is specific about abstinence requiring no eating from sundown to sunrise, no smoking and no sexual activity. Jews practice an absolute fast for 24 hours at Yom Kippur with no eating and drinking at all. Hinduism has several periods of fasting wrapped around the ascending and descending moon.The New York Times has reported on Lent’s observance among secular adults, including former Christians sentimental about their roots, who see it as a time for discipline and self-improvement.

After the fasting comes the feasting. There are special foods in abundance with treats galore. No holds barred. And so, we live in a rhythm of fasting and feasting, feasting, then more fasting. We feast and we are fat in so many ways. We live in a time of extremes with people thinking and being at opposite ends of the continuum. We are workaholics and then playaholics. One percent of the world’s population holds most of the world’s wealth, while nearly half the world struggles to meet basic needs.

Political parties take positions at opposite ends of their political continuum and rarely venture toward the middle. We act out rightness and wrongness with little awareness that leaves space to find common ground. We are religiously divided, with some hanging on tight to the end of the continuum of traditional belief, allowing for no change, while the ranks of the disenfranchised former believers and atheists grow larger at the other far end.

We are in desperate need of the middle, where balance lives. Could the Lenten season be a time to commit to growing a middle ground? It will be a tough 40 days even if you practice only on your own home. You can grow the middle by:

• Shifting to only listening when heated differences emerge in conversation.

• Slow down your reaction to a repugnant idea by asking,“What don’t I like? What do I like? What do I find interesting?” — and sharing your thoughts.

• Build in a count of 30 when you want to indulge in too much food and drink, too much screen time, too much rightness to allow yourself space to truly choose.

• Give up the concept of “right and wrong” and use the concept of “dilemma” or “conundrum” that needs a practical resolution.

• Try some silence to create a natural balance in yourself that will help you find the center of any continuum of opposition you happen to be on.

New behavior needs exaggeration and focus. What if this Lenten season were used to abstain from staying in opposition to others and to practice meeting in the middle?

 

Joyce Wilson-Sanford of Cape Elizabeth is a former Hannaford executive, a blogger, an executive coach and author of “I Pray Anyway: Devotions for the Ambivalent.”

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