Everyone can benefit from a Lenten sacrifice

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A year ago, I was sitting in a very boring lecture, relying on my PowerBook to make it through without being bored out of my mind. No offense to the professor or anything, but an hour and a half on game searching using functors when you?re just going to be doing the exact same thing in another lecture three hours later isn?t that much fun.
I began surfing the Web; a classmate was about to do the same when he stopped himself short. He explained to me that he had given up Internet-based time wasters for Lent. My response quickly turned from surprise to understanding; although this case was quite interesting, I have never been a stranger to people who give things up for Lent.
As best as I can tell, this (mostly Roman Catholic) tradition of giving things up emerged from the practice of fasting; while fasting generally involves some sort of abstinence from food, a decreased indulgence in such pleasures of this world is mostly consistent with the meaning of fasting.
Just as Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights while being tempted, so too do many Christians fast during the season of Lent. It?s not a uniquely Christian practice, of course, but the current season begs its mention, as the campus is doubtlessly filled with people giving up some of the more conspicuous parts of their daily lives.
Without meaning to pass judgment on how the main focus of Lent for most people seems to be partying on Fat Tuesday, I would submit that giving something up is a practice followed to nothing near its due extent. As it is, people are satisfied to be without some trivially unnecessary extra in their lives, without even giving thought to giving up food or something ?important.?
Of course, I?m not looking for people to come up to me and say, ?But I?m giving up this and that;? as we read in Matthew 6:16, a fast and whatever it may involve is not something for the people around one to know, but something for God to know. It doesn?t really do me any good, other than a sideways interest in circumspection.
Consider it instead on a more general scale. All religion aside, all higher purposes notwithstanding, this practice of giving up worldly indulgences has a simpler value that anybody can appreciate.
Take, for example, the transcendentalist movement in early 19th-century America ? hundreds of people giving up bustling lives to live with nature, learning about the world through their own interpretation. Or, perhaps, the recent growth of Zen Buddhism in the United States ? people sitting down to meditate for hours a day just to learn about the sound of people sitting quietly.
These are extreme examples, to be sure. These groups did much more than giving up a few of the unnecessary pleasures of life, but their message is clear: We don?t need to surround ourselves with material possessions in order to achieve happiness.
Call it a reaction to the conspicuous consumption culture evident in society today; while most seem to enjoy it, a good percentage of the general population would probably admit they tend to buy items and engage in activities just for the pure pleasure of spending money. I?m personally no exception: One look at my collection of useless stuff would leave most anybody with a sense of amazement.
Perhaps this truth evolves into the clich?d ?search for meaning? in one?s life. Perhaps it?s a testament to the power of capitalism. Perhaps it?s just a sad commentary on the state of modern America that people need to continually practice consumerism to a hazardous level.
It seems hypocritical to tell people to look for a simpler life when we?re all paying tens of thousands of dollars out the nose for a college degree. Certainly, then, it?s nothing but self-indulgence that brings us to seek the greatest education available in modern academia. Of course, calling the college experience wholly indulgent is impossible; the goals of personal development and growth during one?s undergraduate years elevate tuition to a much more important level than buying the latest and greatest gadget.
No, it is the relentless pursuit of materialism that proves to be our downfall here. Only when we stop worrying about all of the temporal concerns of the world can we really find ourselves in a better place. This year, instead of ?giving something up? for the sake of blindly paying lip service to a tradition, we should all take a step back and realize why this tradition exists in the first place.

Jim Puls (jpuls@) is The Tartan?s Managing Editor. He guarantees that this is the most conservative piece you?ll ever see him write in this paper.