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Christine LenahanMarch 27, 2024
Photo via iStock

“The first mistake is never the one that ruins you,” writes James Clear in his bestselling self-help book Atomic Habits, “It is the spiral of repeated mistakes that follows. Missing once is an accident. Missing twice is the start of a new habit.”

Now, say what you might about the new-age gospel of self-help, but in this case Clear is right. When we create small changes, over time they compound to make large-scale transformations. With this in mind, I approached the Lenten season with great hope. It will only take a few days, I thought, and then my Lenten promise—to text 40 people, one person a day, and tell them I am grateful for them—will be a fully formed habit of gratitude. A promise that I hoped would connect me to my friends and family, remind me of the love in my life and draw me closer to God seemed like a sound way to spend 40 days. 

But, by the close of the initial week of Lent, I had already missed three days of text, and three names on my checklist. A miss on Tuesday, followed by another on Thursday—indeed, “missing twice is the start of a new habit.” Two misses became three and then it was a Sunday, and technically can’t I cheat on Sundays? And then I decided this Lenten promise of gratitude texts was not working, so I tried to pick a new pledge. So then it was one week without coffee, another sans chocolate, then avoiding plastic utensils and finally abstaining from social media. Instead of the profound commitment and ongoing habit I sought, I found myself in a Goldilocks predicament: one sacrifice felt too trivial, another seemingly insurmountable, and none “just right.” I was, by all my standards, failing at Lent. 

In my experience, selecting a Lenten promise has sometimes felt like an online personality quiz: “Which Lenten sacrifice are you?” Feeling bold this time around? Try not to eat any meat. Are you sick of giving things up and want to take on a promise this year? Volunteer on Saturdays.

When hearing about my original Lenten plans this year, one of my friends said offhandedly, “Oh, that’s such a thing you would do for Lent.” He didn’t mean it in an insulting way, as if this promise would not be challenging enough, but because it was a challenge that matched my personality. My friends know I often log people and things I am grateful for in my journal. Why not share that thankfulness directly with them?

A New Challenge

In the past, I have not approached Lent with some great ambition or tremendously pious promise, but for whatever reason—perhaps it was starting as an O’Hare fellow at America, ​​where Lent is as regular a topic as the weather—spurred me to action this year. I was eager to share my plans with anyone who would listen. I told coworkers how I made a spreadsheet checklist with automatic reminders on my phone to text my friends and family to prove my “I’m taking Lent very seriously” attitude. Sure, I was not fasting or committing to one of the sacrifices in the Lenten trifecta—chocolate, meat, booze—but I was taking on a promise that I had reflected on, prayed about, and even enshrined in an article for America.

I went to confession on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and told my confessor of my plans; I couldn’t see him in the confessional, of course, but his tone of voice sounded impressed. I’d done it! I prepped, I planned, and now I was ready. I was going to “win” Lent.

And that—the idea that I could “win” at Lent—was my first mistake. And an attempt at a “victory” meant the possibility of a defeat: I could not just allow myself to pick up where I left off, or find beauty in the struggle, or recommit to a promise that I knew I wanted to make. Lent had become a great adversary, some impossible opponent that I was insisting upon defeating, a game that I was determined to win.

“I’m at war with Lent,” I said to my friend mid-season, “and I feel like I’m losing.”

I was prepared to “succeed” this Lent, but instead, it was one of my most difficult efforts. This was in part because I viewed this season as a competition between my idealized, spiritual self and my actual, human self. I had created a battle between the Platonic form of me-during-Lent, a perfect Catholic who uses Lent for mature self-reflection and detachment, versus the everyday me, a woman who tries and fails and tries again, to live out her faith. 

James Clear’s self-help principle of habit forming means that eventually those habits are integrated into an everyday routine and executed with ease. But Lenten promises are not “habits” in that sense. They are intended to be deliberate and should not become a thoughtless act after 40 days. Our promises should remain challenging enough that we remember why we chose to make that sacrifice in the first place.

I was held back, too, by the notion that I could get Lent “right.” But no matter how hard we prepare, or how often we consult a list of 101 things to do, nothing can rid us of the fact that we are humans chock-full of foibles and follies. We’re going to get it wrong sometimes. And acknowledging and embracing that is, in fact, right.

Failures, perceived and actual, open us up to revealing vulnerabilities. But Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity, is with us in that vulnerability. Not fulfilling my Lenten promises exactly as planned isn’t something I should necessarily feel ashamed of; it just means I’m human. And that cannot be such a bad thing because, as Easter reminds us, so was Christ. And even our perceived failures can bring us closer to him. As I struggled to pick the perfect promise, I thought that meant I was distancing myself from God, but the reality is that I was in conversation with God in prayer for almost 40 days straight, something I’ve never done before. 

It is no surprise that people feel a bit of pressure to make the Lenten season perfect. But we are allowed to feel overwhelmingly O.K. about how our Lenten season has turned out. (Or as one 5th-grader brilliantly described his Lent: “mid, not the best, but not necessarily bad.”) We’re allowed to be frustrated by our shortcomings. What we cannot do, and I learned this rather slowly, is let ourselves feel like we are losing a challenge that God has decreed from on high. 

I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I struggle to answer the question of how I spent my Lent. But I also know that Lent is meant to remind us of our humanness, our mortality, our shortcomings, and most of all, our belovedness by God, even in our failures. But I’ve also learned that Lent is not a ​​spiritual open enrollment period that shuts down at Easter. If these past 40 days did not live up to our expectations, we do not have to wait until next year to reattempt our promises. We can pick ourselves back up, regardless of the liturgical season. We can try again.

More: Lent / Prayer / Faith

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