I like to bond over mutual hatreds and petty grievances.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and I’ve got big plans.  The beginning of the Lenten season is basically another excuse to make a resolution I firmly intend to keep (and will feel intensely guilty the moment I break it), and, thus, my history with Lent has been a short and dramatic one.  I am stubborn, so, in the past, I have seen my fast as a competition.  I will give up more than you.  I will give up better than you.  I will win at Lent.  That is wrong in so many obvious ways I won’t waste time enumerating  them, and it’s probably why I failed so miserably at gaining anything from my experience when I was young.  

Another reason why I commonly failed is that my “temptations” were inherently non-temptations, perhaps selected so that I could appear pious but, in reality, sacrifice nothing at all. I am, after all, the laziest of assholes.  You say: “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent” and everyone around you purses their lips and nods in sympathy.  “Mmmmmhm,” they say.  “That’s a tough one.”  I loved it.  What a good little girl I was.  But chocolate, while it is delicious and sometimes alcoholic, is not something I encounter or crave every moment of my existence.  In fact, it was such a non-thing in my life that I would actually forget I’d given it up.  It just wasn’t a big deal.  If I ate chocolate, I lost the game.  If I didn’t, I probably didn’t even notice.

I started doing Lent “right” for the first time my freshman year of college.  It was the first time a priest had told me that “Lenten sacrifice” didn’t have to be an exercise in depriving yourself.  I didn’t have to sacrifice something I loved, something that made me happy, or bettered my life.  It wasn’t meant to be negative in nature.  During Lent you could, rather than giving up chocolate, start volunteering at an animal shelter.  You could put all your tip money into a jar and donate it to a charity on Easter.  You could make it your goal to be more positive and spread joy by complimenting someone every day.  Instead of setting unrealistic goals for yourself and tearing yourself down when you fail to reach them, why not better yourself?  Why not build up your community?

Photo: Dale W. Eisinger/IBTimes

Photo: Dale W. Eisinger/IBTimes

That was the year Lent finally clicked for me.  I decided to give up Facebook.  Seeing people’s status updates, their photo albums, watching them interact with friends often makes me feel inadequate and boring, but also makes me wonder why no one ever thinks of me.  If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you already know how badly I flail on the Internet.  I post things about my life on Facebook I think are funny or interesting and cry like a child when the people I want to like them don’t, and resent the people who do for not being the people I want them to be.  It’s really poisonous, but I operate under a constant fear that not having a Facebook will permanently disconnect me from my peers…

Now, abstaining from Facebook during Lent for three straight years has (obviously) done nothing for my problematic relationship with social networking, but it did produce a travel journal that has since become fat beyond its binding.  The thing is literally the size of an infant, and it’s bursting with memories.  There are ribbons, club entry bracelets, cards, ticket stubs, wrapping paper, brochures, maps, museum guides.  It is one of my favorite possessions, and it was born through a Lenten fast.  I may have fallen off the face of the Earth to those people who couldn’t care less about my life, but the texts and e-mails I got during those 47 days let me know that there are people who love me, and that I should appreciate them so much more than I do.  I made an effort to be a more creative and generous person, and, even though it’s still an effort and hasn’t become second nature yet, I feel better for it.

This year I’m trying something different.  I did consider giving up Facebook for a fourth year, because every year brings me closer to a healthier understanding of my relationship to social networking.  But it’s a new year, and a new me.  I’m no longer in college, and there are bigger problems than puzzling over why So-&-So didn’t look at my pictures from Ireland.  I also broke my computer, which means Facebook is no longer an option when I wake up in the morning or before I go to sleep.  I’m already finding new, creative ways to enrich my life outside of Facebook, so I needed to find something else to give up for Lent–something much more prevalent and harmful to my well-being than a virtual news feed.

the dark hand of broken extends over my gmail inbox

the dark hand of broken extends over my gmail inbox

What I’ve realized about myself and the people I interact with on a daily basis is that we bond through our mutual miseries.  When I see someone in the library, I say “Hi, oh my gosh, I’m so tired.  I’ve been here for 5 hours!  Get me out!”  They say, “Oh, boy, that is horrible.  I can’t even imagine–get out of here before you die!  I have a long night ahead of me here.  Escape while you still can!”  I normally consider this a positive interaction.  We can both relate to being tired and being sick of the library.  We bonded over this fact, and its likely we even laughed.  But we also probably left feeling worse than before, dwelling on the fact that our time spent studying so overwhelms our time to unwind.

Now rewind and think of the potential that our conversation had to be something really positive.  Someone I know walks into the library, and I wave them over.  I say, “Hi, oh my gosh, what a productive day I’ve had!  I’ve been here for 5 hours and I’ve written two cover letters and applied for three jobs!”  They say, “Oh, boy, that is wonderful!  I can’t even imagine–get out of here and treat yourself!  I hope I’m that productive here tonight.”  We can both relate to doing work in the library and wanting to reward ourselves for a job well done.  We can bond over this fact, and we’re probably going to laugh.  The difference is we’re going to feel so much better leaving the conversation, like we can conquer the world rather than the other way around.

So I’ve decided that this year I’m going to give up complaining for Lent.  But I’m not just going to give up complaining, because I know I won’t be able to do it.  I’m an incredibly emotional person, and the emotions that drive me are 99.9% negative.  I understand this about myself, but I want my failure to bring something to my community, rather than depress me.  So, just like I pledged to do something creative when I gave up Facebook, I’m pledging that I will create a sort of Complaint Jar.  Every time I, or someone I know (and that means you!), catches me complaining and spewing negativity, I am going to put a quarter in my jar.  At the end of my 47 Days of Positivity, I am going to donate that money to Oberlin Community Services.  (If there is less than $50, I’m just going to donate $50.)

And, because I enjoy putting these sorts of things in quasi-19th-Century style writing, please enjoy the following Declaration:

People of the Internet, I do herewith declare that I, Jen Graham, resolve to cease complaining during the period lasting from February 13th to March 30th.  Should I be apprehended in the act of negativity, I publish herein my intention to place $0.25 in a jar on each offense, the contents of which will be, on the First of April, donated to Oberlin Community Services.  With you as my witnesses, I also decree that, should the contents of the jar fail to meet the sum of $50, I will extract the remainder from my own accounts, such that my total donation will not be less than $50.  Thus. do I pledge my mental energy, my tip money, and my sacred Honor.

This is a test, and, like every test I have ever taken, I am going to pass.

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