Most Christians know we are well within the season of Lent, which began Feb. 22 on Ash Wednesday. Most will be surprised to learn that for Lent I’ve resolved not to give up anything, but to give more to myself.
That’s an apparent contradiction, for sure. And yet I think it makes sense. The Good Lord said that we should not love our neighbor more than ourselves but as much as ourselves. Loving ourselves—or, to put it another way, taking care of ourselves–is essential, but it’s not always easy and sometimes requires one or more resolutions.
I’ve come to this conclusion at age 77, which is probably not a coincidence. I’m not as young as I used to be. I may think that I’m 27, but my body lately has frequently told me I’m 77, especially based on signals my back is sending me.
Some surprising stiffness and pain have been my signals that I need to take better care of myself, especially as I advance in age. Yes, I know, some of my readers are saying age is only a number and I should put mind over matter. They have a point.
However, it’s a fact of nature that in our senior citizen years our bodies tend to decline, and to be aware of that makes sense. Once that fact is acknowledged, there are at least four options.
One is to simply give up and mope around. Another is to forget that it’s true, don’t acknowledge any decline, and overdo activity. Another is to fight mightily to try to stop the decline.
A fourth, and I think the most reasonable, approach is to make a resolution to take better care of one’s body, using common sense and listening to advice of professionals.
Lately, I’ve talked with two health care professionals I respect, and they both said, “Walk more.” They’ve given me some other sensible tips, which I’m also following, but I’ve focused on walking.
It may seem strange that walking can strengthen a person’s back, but medical research has shown that it’s true. In addition to helping the heart, lungs, legs and balance, walking helps the back.
So this became my Lenten resolution, not just to walk more but to walk every day, and not just around the block but one or two or even three miles a day. I’ve acted on this resolution, starting out slowly and walking for about 15 minutes, then lengthening the walking time to 30, then 40 minutes or more.
I’m also doing other sensible things for my body, especially my back. I try not to sit too long at my computer without getting up and then walking around and stretching. I’m also careful about what and how I lift.
For my mind, as well as my body, I’m trying to reduce daily stress by not scheduling too many things in one day. I have to remind myself I shouldn’t try to stuff 10 pounds of potatoes into a five-pound bag. I’m having to say to folks more often either “Sorry, I can’t” or “Maybe later.”
These things are hard to say and do because they indicate personal limitations. Maybe this admission is also in the spirit of Lent, conducting as part of regular self-reflection an examination of one’s limitations, as well as one’s conscience.
For those of you who are giving up things like candy or alcohol as a Lenten resolution, I applaud you. What you’re doing is a good form of self-discipline. But another form of self-discipline is doing something–specifically, doing something you should do, but otherwise wouldn’t have done, like walking every day.
For most of my life I operated on the principle, as many people do, of sacrificing, aka neglecting, my body in order to achieve other loftier personal mental or spiritual heights. But I’ve now realized that this can be counterproductive.
I’m drawn to the analogy of airplane oxygen masks. On each plane ride the attendant reminds passengers that if they are traveling with a child and the air cabin pressure drops, they need to put on their mask first, then their child’s.
For parents that may not be instinctive. They’d be inclined to help their child first. But if the child has a mask and the maskless parent can’t function, the child won’t get the help she or he needs.
I’ve come to realize that I’m not going to be much good to my family (especially my wife Sandy) or my friends if I can’t function. And so I walk more and do less.
The conclusion I’ve reached also applies, I think, to people younger than 77, even much younger people. Taking care of ourselves at any age is important, and that goes beyond walking and exercising to eating well and sleeping sufficiently.
I think my good friends Father John and Father Oscar may understand when I tell them I’m not giving up anything for Lent, but instead I’m doing more for myself. They’re both wise and compassionate.
John Spevak’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.