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Forgoing the pity party this Lent

Editorial Board | Thursday, February 23, 2012

In case you didn’t notice people walking to class with ashen crosses on their foreheads this Wednesday, Lent has officially begun. At Mass on Ash Wednesday, we were told, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

This somber attitude will continue through the days leading up to Easter. The dining halls will stop serving meat on Fridays and the usual “Alleluia” will be removed from daily Mass. The campus takes on a more reserved mood overall. It’s a time of contemplation and penitence.

And to commemorate Christ’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the desert, as well as the month proceeding Easter, Catholics traditionally give up some kind of luxury.

On Tuesday night, Twitter statuses featured Notre Dame students’ well-intentioned Lenten plans. We bid adieu to our guilty pleasure television shows and our favorite desserts. The University held multiple Masses throughout the day, even though Ash Wednesday isn’t a Holy Day of Obligation. The Observer even had a poll and ran an article: “Lenten promises: a how-to guide.”

When it comes to choosing something to give up for Lent, Notre Dame favorites include television, chocolate, Facebook, video games and other modern day vices.

But as the Lenten season approaches, what we choose to let go seems to escalate.

“I’m giving up Facebook.”

“Well, I’m giving up social networking.”

“Then I’m giving up the internet altogether.”

This seems more like a contest than a commemoration. And as a result of this contest, we might find ourselves thinking we should have made a bigger sacrifice. The students who give up the most are “good Catholics,” while those of us who give up something small are “bad Catholics.”

These sacrifices should challenge us to look inwardly at our own faults and draw us closer to Christ’s sacrifice, but the competiveness can become distracting. When it comes to Lent, it’s easy for us to lose sight of its true purpose. As usual, Notre Dame students feel the need to be the best at whatever we do, especially if that includes being a “good Catholic.”

Lent is a time of mourning, penitence and self-denial, but we also face temptation. Within every sacred holiday or observation, we run the risk of feeding one of our worst characteristics: our pride.

It becomes too easy for us to focus on what we gain and forget about what we lose, and why.

For example, some of us might give up junk food with the intention of getting back into shape after a long South Bend winter. While stepping back from the fro-yo and heading for the fruit might bode well for our Spring Break plans, Lent isn’t spring training. If giving up dining hall desserts will be one of the biggest challenges for us, we should give it up. During Lent we practice self-discipline without reaping a reward.

But if we don’t purposefully disrupt our day-to-day routine, we’re not really making a sacrifice. By removing something from our lives, we create a space. We need discipline and reflection to choose something selfless and meaningful to fill that void.

And having an ulterior motive certainly won’t get us into a selfless state of mind. When we’re too busy thinking about how much we miss our venti Mocha Frappuccino, we might have the temptation to complain about how much we’re giving up. This fills the space with concerns about caffeine-withdrawal headaches — not exactly a constructive pastime.

If Lent is about self-discipline, we should focus our thoughts as much as our actions. The mindset behind our sacrifices is as important as the sacrifices themselves.

So maybe for Lent, instead of giving up another item on the dining hall menu, we can choose to yield a selfish way of thinking. Pity parties may run rampant as we mourn the loss of Huddle candy or video games, but consider the alternative: What if we forgo the time spent feeling sorry for ourselves and spend it thinking about the suffering of others?

Even though Lent is characterized by mourning and penance, focusing on the solidarity of sacrifice is something we can celebrate to the fullest.