A couple Fridays ago my husband and I snuck out for a much-needed date night at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant. When I walked into the restaurant, where the owner and his assistant craft every meal from scratch, I actually got shaky: I’d had such a crazy day that I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch, so I hadn’t eaten in almost twelve hours. I am a pasta-holic anyway, and in my extreme low blood sugar state I whispered to my husband that if anyone came between me and the three-cheese meat lasagna there was going to be violence. I was only sort of kidding.
It was like something out of a horror movie, then, when I remembered that I’d committed to giving up all wheat products for Lent. I could practically hear dramatic music like the theme from Psycho playing as I stumbled back in horror, realizing that not only was pasta off the list, but meat was out as well since it was a Friday. As I perused the menu in a dizzy state of ravenous shock — fettuccini alfredo, five-cheese baked ziti, beef ravioli with butter parmesan sauce — the low-blood-sugar-having side of my personality called into question the entire concept of giving something up for Lent. I turned to prayer (it’s a good thing God knows what’s in our hearts, because my prayer was something like, “AAAAAAAH! NOOOOOOO!”) and was quickly reminded that what I was going through was indescribably minuscule compared to what Christ suffered on the cross because of my sins. I realized the absurdity of even saying “craving pasta” in the same sentence with “Christ’s sufferings on the cross,” and might have even managed to feel glad that my discomfort had been a catalyst to turn my thoughts to God.
And then the waiter set a fresh-baked loaf of bread in front of me, and any bit of spiritual maturity I may have managed to muster was gone as soon as the warm aroma wafted my direction. There was that frantic, hypoglycemic devil on my shoulder again, whispering that giving up wheat is insane, that it’s downright unreasonable not to eat a little bread, that I should just do some other form of penance later. Just as I was about to take a little bite, somewhere in my mind I heard my mother-in-law’s voice say:
“WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE!”
This is one of my mother-in-law’s favorite sayings. I first heard it when she told me of a conversation she’d had with a lady who was planning to divorce her husband because the “spark” was gone and she wanted to live the high life in the dating world. Once my mother-in-law ascertained that the husband in question was hard-working, kind, and a good father, she grabbed the woman by the arm and told her of the struggles she’s faced in her life, and ended her story with, “Listen! What you think is out there, AIN’T OUT THERE!” (When I asked her if this person ended up getting a divorce she said she didn’t know because this was a lady behind her in line at Wal-Mart.)
My mother-in-law, whom we call “Yaya,” is a tough Southern Baptist gal who is really more of a force of nature than a regular person. She’s also the Albert Einstein of common sense. She had a very rough childhood, growing up in poverty in rural Texas, and ended up becoming a single mother after an unwanted divorce when her son (my husband) was still a toddler. Her only education beyond high school is a Ph.D. from the School of Hard Knocks, and it is only through tough-as-nails determination and her strong faith in God that she clawed her way out of poverty and built a better life for herself and her son. She has a passion for helping people improve their lives by sharing the life lessons she’s learned, and though her methods for communicating her wisdom are often unorthodox and sometimes unappreciated, I have found that there is a lot of truth in what she says.
In particular, I keep coming back to her oft-repeated line, “WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE!” (Sorry for the all caps, but it’s the only proper way to quote her.) She used this line in response to her neighbor who started to gamble away his family’s savings, to her friend who wanted to stop going to church because she wanted more free time, to the relative who worked eighty hours a week to try to get a glamorous promotion, and to countless bank tellers, grocery store checkers, and people in line behind her at various places throughout the greater Houston area.
What she is essentially trying to convey is this:
You will find, my friend, that the only possible way to find deep fulfillment and satisfaction in life is to make love your number one priority: center your entire life around loving others, loving He who is Love itself, and your soul will rejoice in the glory of finally finding its true purpose. Anything else is a distraction. Whether it’s a hot job or a good day at the casino or a decadent meal or a nice car or a huge house, it will bring you only fragile, fleeting joy. Chasing after the comforts and pleasures of this world will lead only to frustration and emptiness. It is only by picking up your cross and seeking to follow the One who originally blazed the trail of a life of self-emptying love that the thirst from deep in your soul will finally be quenched.
It comes out as:
Listen! WHAT YOU THINK IS OUT THERE, AIN’T OUT THERE! [This statement usually accompanied by finger pointing and/or arm grabbing.]
Though her parlance is rather more rough around the edges, I find it to be refreshingly concise and easy to remember — particularly during Lent.
That night at the restaurant Yaya’s salty wisdom saved me from stuffing bread into my mouth and just telling myself that I’d do some other penance later. That night — as well as when a friend brought over homemade cinnamon buns, when I was desperately hungry at the grocery store and watched the kids share a cookie, when I was at a church event and some of the ladies brought freshly baked kolaches — I thought of her words, and asked myself, “What do I think is ‘out there’ in this food? What do I think eating this is going to do for me?” The answer, of course, was that I only wanted the pleasing sensation, which would quickly fade to nothing and leave me wanting more.
Doing something simple like giving up a certain food for Lent has made it so much more real to me that what I think is out there…ain’t out there. After all the woe-is-me theatrics over the bread or the pasta or the cookie, abstaining from eating them had zero impact on my life by any metric that really matters. It’s made it so clear that while there’s nothing wrong in appreciating those delicious foods and enjoying the pleasure they can bring, I don’t need them to be happy or fulfilled or satisfied. I don’t need them at all.
This Lent, the big theme for me is detachment. I didn’t exactly intend for that to be my big though topic this year, but I find that the more I immerse myself in traditional Catholic Lenten practices, the less I find myself susceptible to the siren song of “the world.” The simple lesson I learn each time I’m tempted to reach for a cookie or have a bite of pasta comes to mind when I’m tempted to feel like I need a new flat-screen TV like my friend has, or those little extras at the grocery store, or that stylish new outfit. All of those things are nice, and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with having them. But, like with the pasta, none of it can offer me joy of any kind of permanence.
Though giving up foods made of wheat is a small sacrifice, it has served to make me comfortably uncomfortable here in the world. On an intellectual level, I’ve known for a while now that this world is not our home; and now, by the simple act of letting go of some of the little material things I find most pleasurable, I feel it. I understand it on a level much deeper than just something you read about in books. And realizing just how little the material world alone can offer has stirred up a yearning for home, our true home, and the One who resides there.