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Gristmill: Give It Up

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 15:53
Ben D. Glaha / Library of Congress

I wish I could say my experience fasting brought me closer to God. While it may have without my knowing it, it immediately reminded me of a different kind of deprivation: powering through two nights without so much as a minute of sleep back when I wrote one end-of-semester college paper and then another.

In both efforts, the connecting substance was coffee. To stay up for days, drink it black. Lots of it. When fasting, feel free to knock back that entire pot, but fortify it with rich swirls of half-and-half and enthusiastically spooned helpings of sugar. That way it approximates a meal.

Sometimes a body needs a better way to mark time, to consider its passing, a focusing, a new ritual that at once breaks an old routine: meal, computer, walk the dog, return. It’s certainly no 40 days in the desert, but a fast — for Ash Wednesday, for some kind of cleanse, as an aid to meditation — brings you up short, and, yes, you do think of higher things, or at least other things, maybe your own mortality, maybe the suffering of others.

It’s a common enough notion. If a surfeit of freedom is counterintuitively paralyzing, or simply makes you crazy, there’s a different, unexpected kind of unfettering in structure, or tradition, or belief in something. It can hit like a relief.

This is one of the fascinations of the Lenten season, with its rules and strictures, its gentle urging to be even one click’s worth of a better person. What, you don’t like being reminded that your existence is at the mercy of a higher order, whether God, the natural world, or even a sun that will one day run out of fuel and die? This is a time to be reconciled. To give up control.  

We “shall not live on bread alone,” we’re told. After fasting I woke up refreshed, positive, unworried. Energized and absent the usual headache. 

“Behold, now is a very acceptable time,” I recalled. And then I tore a hunk off a Brooklyn-baked loaf and had at it.

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