Throughout my teens I always gave up something for Lent, even though I wasn’t Catholic. Just because.
Occasionally, I put a little thought and effort into it, sacrificing the pleasure of reading myself to sleep or of dark chocolate or some such thing. Sometimes I did it flippantly, like when I said I was giving up homework, or the time I gave up dating -- despite at the time, never having had a boyfriend or even ever having been on a date.
I’d never tried something that seemed truly important, but looking back, I can see that even those silly-seeming sacrifices had a deeper effect than I realized at the time.
Denying myself bedtime reading was genuinely distressing for a bookworm like me, but it helped me to not only get more sleep (as normally I tended to finish the book in the wee hours instead of putting it down after a few pages). It also nudged me into finding better ways to manage my life to fit in reading sessions at more reasonable times.
Putting aside the chocolate made it easier to turn down other sweets and less-than-healthy snacks. Afterward, I found that it took far less chocolate to give me far more pleasure -- I savored it on a level that satisfied more than just my sweet tooth -- and chose better quality.
I didn’t exactly give up homework after all, except by the strictest definition. I made the most of my class and study hall time to get my assignments done, so I wouldn’t have to do the work at home (or rather in my dorm room) after all. Knowing that I could do that felt so empowering that, although I chose not to make it a habit throughout my academic career, I continued to do it on and off, to free up more time for extracurriculars and -- nerd that I am -- an extra class for fun, which turned out to pay off big time for my grades and in scholarships.
Giving up dating turned out to be less redundant and more serious than I had imagined. For forty glorious days, I was free of my teenage worries that I wasn’t cute enough or popular enough to be asked out; my wild crushes crumbled into a mild, manageable, and reasonable affection and I simply had fun with my group of friends. As it happened, I didn’t have a first date/first boyfriend until I was well into my 18th year -- practically an old lady among my peers -- but those five freeing weeks released me (to a large degree, comparatively speaking) from the adolescent angst of feeling like a social outcast and left me open to forging bonds of true friendship that still hold strong twenty-plus years later.
Although it makes it easier to keep track of, it can't hurt to remember that we don’t have to wait until Lent (or New Year’s or Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan, etc.) to give up things that distract us from -- or feed into -- larger issues. And sometimes we just might find that it’s the little things we put aside even for such a short time are the ones that make the biggest changes in our lives.