How the Superbowl reminded me why I love Lent

January 27, 2010 | 12 comments

Yaya is here and I’m taking some extra time to work on the book, so here’s something I wrote a while back that I’ve been thinking about lately. It was originally published on February 4, 2008.

This weekend I heard a guy on television talking about Tom Brady’s amazing life: he’s a handsome star NFL quarterback who was on track to have an undefeated season (this was before the game, obviously), not to mention the fact that he’s dating the beautiful Victoria’s Secret model Giselle.

The guy on television talked about how unfathomably amazing Brady’s life would be if the Patriots won the Super Bowl. He stared in wonder for a moment as he reflected on this concept. You could practically see the wheels in his mind turning as he pictured walking off the football field from an undefeated season in the NFL, feeling the rain of confetti, hearing the cheers of screaming fans, heading off to spend the evening with his hot celebrity model girlfriend. Clearly, this scenario represented the very pinnacle of the human experience for this man.

Being too tired to do anything more mentally productive, I took a moment to try to think of what my version of a big Super Bowl win would be. I thought back to the days when my life revolved around pursuing things like status and money and comfort, and thought about what it would have been like if I’d achieved more success in that area than I could have ever dreamed.

One result of this thought exercise is that I realized that my dreams were really nerdy (the best I could come up with was imagining my picture on the cover of Forbes where it was announced that Google and Microsoft were in a ruthless public bidding war over some amazing software I wrote). The most interesting result, though, was that I knew exactly how I would have felt if I had achieved all of my worldly ambitions: excited, prideful, honored…and a little bit depressed.

I’d forgotten about this until now, but up until a few years ago, almost every time something exciting or good happened I would feel a tinge of depression. No matter how great or exciting the situation, for some reason I could never quite feel fully happy about it. Just as my happiness would be about to reach a crescendo, something would make it fall flat, like when a singer just barely misses the high note. I didn’t generally struggle with depression in this time in my life; it was just that, for some odd reason, whenever something particularly good occurred, it would trigger a vague sensation of despair somewhere deep down inside. I didn’t understand why this happened. My best guess was that maybe I had some problem with not feeling like I deserved good things, or that I had some issue with depression that I wasn’t acknowledging.

Though those two things may have been factors, I don’t think they were at the root of the problem. Thinking back on it today, it’s clear that something else, a very real, inconvenient truth was there in the back of my mind when I got that promotion, deposited the big paycheck, bought the cool car, moved into the downtown loft, got that amazing Christmas present, traveled to the interesting places, went to the hip parties, landed a big client:

This is as good as it gets…but it’s not quite good enough.

The fun wasn’t fun enough, the luxuries weren’t luxurious enough, the excitement wasn’t exciting enough to completely smother out that part of my soul that begged for something more. It wasn’t that I wasn’t grateful — to the contrary, I regularly felt overwhelmed with gratitude for all the wonderful things in my life — it’s that there was a subtle but present sense of despair that these things weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. I was kind of happy. But why wasn’t I fully happy, why wasn’t I completely at peace, why was I still a little bit restless, even when I technically had it all?

Christians used to ask me: “Don’t you feel like there’s something missing?” To which I would respond by rolling my eyes. In my worldview, the only things humans could possibly need or want were the goals that our species had evolved to need and want, and as long as I had those things or felt certain that I could attain them (which I did), nothing could be missing from my life. I continued to pursue happiness from the possibilities given to me by the material world alone. At some point I came to the realization that the best the world has to offer was probably never going to be good enough; that achieving my wildest dreams , even my own personal version of a Super Bowl win, would make me happy to a certain extent…but not fully. It was a bitter realization.

This is why I love Lent.

For me, Lent is a reminder that what I once thought was the worst news in the world — that there is nothing in the material universe that was going to bring me the deep happiness I craved — is actually the best news in the world. To give up worldly pleasures during Lent, things that I once built my life around pursuing, is to put them in their proper place; to disentangle my hopes and dreams from things and fleeting accomplishments; to set my sights much higher.

Lent reminds me to have a healthy amount of awe for one of the greatest mysteries ever seen: that the human animal, who should know of nothing other than the material world at hand, has from the beginning held on to this perplexing notion that what he needs and wants cannot be found in the only world he’s ever seen. Almost every culture throughout history, separated by time and space, has come up with this idea. I always wrote that off when I was an atheist, assuming that people just needed stories about fantasy worlds to make themselves feel better. But now that I have discovered God’s existence, I get it. This idea won’t die because the thirst we feel deep in our souls is real, and the material world offers us only saltwater to quench it. Looking outside the material world, finding God, is to finally find the pure water that fully satisfies the aching thirst.

Lent reminds me not that all the status and comforts and possessions I’ve pursued are necessarily bad, but that there is Something infinitely better. To quote C.S. Lewis: “All that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — [is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

12 Comments

  1. Roxane B. Salonen

    Jennifer, I think back to the dry spiritual times in my life, times when I really wasn't fully facing God. Instead, I looked to be fulfilled in things like stimulating conversation, fancy foods and other material pleasures. But there was a part of me that felt very out of control, like I was spinning off somewhere without something to ground me. I wouldn't go back to those days for anything in the world. I feel so alive now, even when things aren't perfect in my life. The joy of Christ at your center is, really, indescribable, but you do a wonderful job of getting close. I also think it's so interesting, the atheistic viewpoint that we believers need to make up stories to make ourselves feel better. It had never occurred to me before! Since I was born in the Faith, I just assumed the story was already in place, well before I came into the world. So…as always, I just find your perspective fascinating, and refreshingly honest. I'm so glad you know, now, that that is NOT it at all, not even close. The story WAS in place already, and it's more real than any fantasy could be. Blessings!

  2. Little M

    Ok, so I dislike football so I almost didn't read this post. I'm glad I ignored the title and kept reading!

    Yeah, you're hitting the nail on the head. Thanks for putting it all into words so beautifully and reinforcing my journey.

    And what a great quote!

  3. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time

    Wow–what a great reminder to me today, as I have been griping because I'm dissatisfied with what I have achieved in my life. Thank you for this!

    I hate football too, Little M…and I'm very much looking forward to the world focusing on the cooler sports–you know, the ones involving ice and snow–in the next few weeks. 😉

  4. Pete Hoge

    I enjoy your writing ,especially
    as I am myself a recent convert
    to the Mercy of Christ through
    the Gospels.

    In AA we try to be "right sized"
    about our daydreams, knowing
    we are sinners.

    Pete.

  5. Destry

    If the material world is so useless and pointless, why did God create it in the first place? Does God want us to avoid striving for anything, to learn anything, to master a skill? Not all human ambition is shallow greediness.
    I would like to feel all this peace and love from Jesus, but nothing's there so far.

  6. IronDog

    Jennifer, as an atheist I can tell you that each of us has to find their own reason for being, to fill their existential void. Some find it with religion, others power and status, and others drugs and alcohol. I find mine through intellectual pursuits, travel and my work as a guidance cousnelor. I can live my life concurrently feeding my mind and helping others, by discovering the world and making it a little better along the way for people. Interesting blog I stumbled across after my slow conversion to atheism that was finally crystallized about 8-10 years ago. It has been the only world view that is intellectually sound and comfortable for me.

  7. Destry

    Jen, you wrote a nice comment to me on another post, and I feel bad for being such a smart-mouth, but faith is so frustrating for me. Reaching out to Jesus feels like hearing that some guy likes you and wants to get to know you, but never calls. You sit by the phone, wondering what you did wrong.

  8. Deanna

    Last weekend, I was with a group of friends who were discussing travel, careers, vacation homes, etc, and I had the most freeing realization…that although I, too, once focussed on these things, I now actually feel very unattached to them. What a tremendously freeing feeling!! I wasn't "trying" to become detached from material things, but I think it was a natural consequence of becoming focussed on God (I was received into the Catholic Church this past Easter and, like you, Jennifer, I did a great deal of seeking and questioning to get there!)
    I agree with Destry that material things ARE good, God created them good. (In fact, it is a Christian heresy to say otherwise). But, I think it is our attachments to them, and our misuse of them that are not good. Some people will use travel, career ambitions, talents, possessions, etc to help others, and this is very good. But others will use travel, career, and other material things to serve only themsleves…and from this, I think, is where that nagging sense of disappointment you wrote of, Jennifer, can come from. God created us in His image, and given that His image is one of total self-giving love, we too are created to use our entire life (from talents, to the use of material things) in self-giving love. This is how we were created, and this is where a truly deep joy arises from. God needs us to be detached from material things and worldly goals so we don't "hold anything back"…that way, we can truly love our neighbor in the way God asks us to.

  9. Ray Ingles

    I've always been an atheist (still am), but back in college I and my friends would do a two-month Lent (i.e. we'd start early and do 60 days). One year I gave up computer games; another, processed sugar (ate a lot of raisin bran for breakfast).

    Even atheists can understand that material things are nice and all, but relationships with people are much more rewarding. And even atheists can understand that reminders are sometimes helpful.

    A quote from a science-fiction story by Spider Robinson: "Call it… joy. The thing like pleasure that you feel when you've done a good thing or passed up a real tempting chance to do a bad thing. Or when the unfolding of the universe just seems especially apt. It's nowhere near as flashy and intense as pleasure can be. Believe me! But it's got something going for it. Something that can make you do without pleasure, or even accept a lot of pain, to get it."

    I don't think it requires a supernatural outlook to understand that.

  10. Maria

    Hi Jennifer, I just stumbled upon your blog. You are so right with this post. Even as a life-long Catholic, I experience this even still when my desires and ambitions overshadow what God is to me. Which happens more than I care to admit, but I've become better at recognizing it sooner.

  11. Jodi

    This is interesting because Tom brady has actually suffered from a lot of depression. He is from a Catholic family but he is no longer practicing.

  12. Lillia Rhum

    You made some respectable points there. I regarded on the internet for the difficulty and located most individuals will go along with together with your website.

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