1. Reject Destructive, Self-Pitying Thoughts
Now that you’re out in the wide open world, without the formative constraints and influences you had in college, some of the good habits you formed then have likely slipped away.
Possibly, without the next outdoor trip looming over you, or the shame of the nightly dorm push-ups, or the fear of the next dorm raid, or the workout buddy to go to the gym with, you’ve gotten weak and out of shape. Or maybe, since you no longer have formal classes to prepare for, or professors to try to please, or friends to discuss ideas with, you’ve fallen out of the habit of study. Perhaps, since you no longer have communal night prayer, or you have a more limited work schedule, or you have less beautiful liturgies in your local area, you’ve fallen out of the habit of frequent prayer. Reasonably, if you now have a spouse and children to care for, you may not be free to improve yourself in these areas according to your ideals. Without the structured formation and freedom from responsibility that we had in college, it’s likely that we’ve gotten out of balance and may have digressed either physically, intellectually, or spiritually.
You may be tempted to dwell upon how much you’ve lost, how much better you used to be back then, how much harder life is now, how puny and pitiful you are . “Woe is me that I don’t live the good life as I’m supposed to! My professors would be so ashamed! My friends wouldn’t accept me if they knew how much I’d fallen!” Etc. Etc.
I have certainly been tempted to feel this way, and if you choose to dwell on these thoughts, it will lead you down a dark and miserable path. If you’re constantly thinking about how much you’ve lost, how much you’re lacking, you will feel stagnant, stuck and at a loss for how to get out. You may even beat yourself for feeling this way or for having these temptations. After all, wasn’t our education supposed to make us free to pursue the highest things? Why, then, do I feel that I an unable to do anything good? There are too many options, too many ways to pursue God. But I am limited by my circumstances; I can’t do it all, so I’m a failure. And we go on in a vicious cycle of self-pity, disrupting our peace. Consider this passage from Father Philippe’s little book:
There is a “temptation to believe that, in the situation which is ours (personal, family, etc.), we lack something essential and that because of this, our progress, and the possibility of blossoming spiritually, is denied us. . . I am concentrated on the negatives of my situation, on that which I lack in order to be happy. This renders me unhappy, envious and discouraged and I am unable to go forward. The real life is elsewhere, I tell myself, and I simply forget to live. . . We often live with this illusion. With the impression that all would go better, we would like the things around us to change, that the circumstances would change. But this is often an error. It is not the exterior circumstances that must change; it is above all our hearts that must change. They must be purified of their withdrawal into themselves, of their sadness, of their lack of hope” (Rev. Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, p. 42-43).
How can we change our hearts to be purified of this destructive self-pity? How can turn our sadness into joy, and transform our despair into hope? What can we do to combat the envy and discouragement that results from this withdrawal into ourselves?
When we find ourselves stuck in this negative thinking, we have to find a way to change our mindset to a positive outlook. Instead of focusing on what we don’t have, on what we’ve lost, we must get out of ourselves by turning our gaze outwards to what we do have, to what we’ve gained.
2. Give Thanks
The best way to recognize the graces in our lives is to give thanks. Transform your perspective by making an act of gratitude to God. If this sounds simple, it’s because it is. The mere act of saying, “Thank you, God” does wonders to transform your outlook, your attitude, your mood. It is pride that keeps us turned inward in despair, wishing that we could do it all by ourselves. To give thanks puts you back in a place of humility. To be in a state of gratitude is to be in a state of grace, for what else is the state of grace then the state of docility to the Lord’s continual gifts?
So, give thanks! Start by thanking God for your life, your education, your family, your friends. When you begin to count your blessings, you’ll realize that you have so much for which to give thanks. Even if it seems like such a little thing, give thanks for it. Even if it seems like a negative thing, trust that God can make all things new, and give thanks for the good that He will bring out of the darkness. If you have been stuck dwelling on how little you are, thank Him that you have been given deeper insight into your smallness. Turn that very thing that has been bothering you into a positive prayer of thanksgiving.
Making gratitude a habit will keep those destructive thoughts from consuming you and set you back on the path towards sanctity. It will begin to restore your peace, and you will be able to enter Lent with a better disposition to pursue holiness.
3. Remember Your State in Life
When you are overcome with gratitude for a gift, your natural response is to want to offer back whatever you can to the giver of the gift. When we are in the state of gratitude towards God, we want to to give ourselves to Him as much as we can. Lent is an opportunity to make a fresh start in offering things up for God. But at this point, we must be careful not to enter a vicious cycle when we realize that we can’t give God as much as He deserves. We must remember our particular situation and limitations, and that will guide us on how we are to surrender ourselves to God this Lent.
Many of us are in the married state of life, which means we didn’t choose the highest, surest path to perfection. Oh well. Don’t get caught up in not being able to do the highest things because you’re not in the highest state of life. It’s better to do something, even if it’s little, rather than moan and groan about how we can’t do the highest thing. Remember, thought number one.
Whatever your state in life, recognize that you are limited by your situation and focus your attention on offering yourself this Lent in a way that befits your circumstances. In short, don’t offer something that will disable you from performing your primary vocation.
4. Give Up Something
When thinking about what to give up for Lent, we can sometimes fall back into that self-destructive mindset. We may think back on how much better we used to be or how much more we used to fast before we had jobs and children. We may feel that we must give up everything because we are attached to everything. Remember thoughts one and three. It is important to make a sacrifice, but we must avoid biting off more than we can chew. If you are tempted to make a list of things that you will give up, try prioritizing your list. What’s the most important thing for you to deny yourself this Lent? If you can do more, great! But if you find yourself failing to keep your resolutions a few weeks into Lent, make a fresh start with just the one, most important thing.
When deciding what your priority should be, reflect on where you might be out of balance. Do you indulge yourself with too many sweets? Or do you struggle to limit your amount of alcohol intake? Maybe you find yourself wasting time on youtube or reddit. Or perhaps you have gotten overly attached to some form of tobacco.
Most of us already have an idea of what those things are that we get attached to and we have a habit of giving them up every year for Lent. Do the normal things that you know you can do, but don’t be complacent in it. Make sure that you are intentional about offering it up out of love for God and a desire to receive more of Him. Remember the rule of charity. If the sacrifice makes you bitter and unable to give thanks, then it is not increasing your charity and it is not worth it. You must make the sacrifice an act of love, which is why I think the next thought is even more important than this one.
5. Do Something Extra
While it is good and necessary to commit to what you will NOT DO, it must be balanced by a commitment TO DO something as well. We deny ourselves lower goods so that we can enjoy higher ones. After we decide what we will offer up, we must make a conscious decision to fill that void with something better. Again, this doesn’t have to be the highest thing if your situation is not the highest state in life. It just has to be something that will better you in some way, either in body, mind or spirit. Whatever low good you give up, choose a higher good to take its place. It’s all about increasing our capacity to love and receive God. If we only deny ourselves lower goods, we will simply be empty. Ultimately, we want to be empty of all earthly goods so that we can be filled only with God. While we are still on the journey towards God, we must make an active effort to fill ourselves with higher goods that are closer to God than that which we are sacrificing.
Remember not to sacrifice or commit to doing more than you can handle, or you will simply be setting yourself up for disappointment. On that note, however, if you do find yourself in the middle of Lent unable to fulfill your resolutions, refer to the top of this list. Instead of dwelling on how much you’ve failed (1.), give thanks to God for the opportunity to grow in humility (2.), remember your place in life (3.), and make a fresh start to give up one thing (4.), and to do one thing (5.).
None of this is new or profound, but it’s sometimes helpful to be reminded of those things we used to discuss so frequently in college. In short, it’s good to recall again and again what the Church has always taught.
I recently reread Rev. Philippe’s little book on peace, and although small and simple and somewhat obvious, it always helps to bring me back to that state of gratitude and peacefulness when I slip into prideful self-loathing and self-pity. If you’re overwhelmed when thinking about all the possible things you could do for Lent, start with something small and do it well. I highly recommend this little book on peace as a simple way to reset. Reading and memorizing the Psalms is also a wonderful refreshment. If you’re an over-thinking idealist like me, make an effort to make your outlook positive and don’t get stuck beating yourself up all Lent. This usually results from fear and pride more than anything else.
I always go back again and again to the story of Martha and Mary. Remember, Jesus’ words, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42). The goal of Lent is to put away the many things that make us anxious and worried so that we can focus on the one thing necessary. Make Lent your opportunity to take one step at a time towards the one thing necessary.