Lent: Extreme Edition

Why giving up an unexpected but targeted trapping of modern life -- like Facebook -- could be the best thing you do spiritually all year

My boyfriend and I were in Mass last month when an announcement reminded me: Lent was coming. I nudged him, stage-whispering, “Oh no — what am I going to give up? I have two weeks to figure it out!”

He gave me The Eye. “Don’t you dare try to give up something even more extreme,” he said.

For the past few years I’d been on a path I nicknamed “Lent This Year: Extreme Edition.” I started out as a teenager by giving up a little bit more each round: candy, then chocolate, then all sweets. In 2010, I took it to another level, dropping out of Facebook completely for six weeks.

Yes, I know the “Giving-Up-X-for-Lent” model has been looked down upon in recent years by some earnest Catholics. Instead of sacrificing something, they profess the value of adding something, like giving or community service.

So, I share my experiences in defense of the idea. If you’re going to sacrifice, I’ve come to believe, the key isn’t just to swear off some little indulgence you enjoy. The greater lessons come from targeting a part of the complicated modern “lifestyle” that keeps you from simplicity … and God.

Giving up human vanity

I don’t remember how I came up with the Facebook idea — but I knew my habit had gotten bad. In any bored moment, I’d hit the home button to see if there were any little notification flags. Even if there weren’t, I’d go to my own profile page. My self-confidence was not at its highest point, after some professional challenges, and one way I took solace was through image — in thinking that I looked good or my life looked exciting and social from the outside.

Facebook, naturally, didn’t want to lose my copious page views and time-on-site. When I chose the “temporarily close my account” option, it literally asked, “Are you sure?” The next page showed pictures of my friends and me having fun. “Dillon will miss you. Melissa will miss you. Lisa will miss you,” it said. Clever devil, that Zuckerberg.

I signed off on Fat Tuesday at midnight. The first eight hours were easy (I slept). But I knew things were going to get tough the next morning when I felt compelled to count down the hours left in Lent. Eight down; 1,072 to go.

It didn’t go perfectly. In bored moments, I found myself turning to the information landfill that is Twitter. My friends had to remember to give me invitations verbally or via e-mail. And it entailed a work sacrifice; since a minor job duty of mine was pushing out content via social media, my very kind coworkers would send out the links on Facebook when needed.

By the end of the 40 days, I knew I was giving up not just a trapping of modern life, but also a mental filler for my down moments. Those moments could be better dedicated to reflection than false stimulation.

Just as importantly, I was also giving up my human vanity. How I looked on the outside became less important than how I felt on the inside; I wasn’t created to be an object of beauty and glamour, but a doer of quiet good deeds.

By Easter, I recognized that vanity for the sham it was. I signed into Facebook again … but after scanning down and down and down in my newsfeed, I realized I hadn’t missed much. I still keep a profile, partly for professional reasons, but I don’t check it nearly as often as I did.

I don’t know if I’d call it a victory for the ages, but the effects on my life of giving up Facebook have been lasting. Certainly more so than giving up chocolate. The key, I think, is deliberating choosing to sacrifice something that impedes a better practice of your faith — and that’s a sacrifice worth making at any time of year. In other words, what’s your Facebook?