Last year around this time, I wrote a post inspired by Mardi Gras. It was about the special space that events like Carnival give us for examining our tightly-held ideas of who we are, what other people think of us, and our role in the narratives we create for ourselves every day. It was one of those “sneak attack” posts that start out light, and then you suddenly realize you’re in some fairly deep waters, but then we end with Rihanna, so you know it’s all gonna be ok. Kind of like meditation – it can take you all kinds of places, but when it’s over, you’re still right there in your body where you started. It’s a bit of a ride, sometimes, even when you think it’s boring, because if you’re being honest with yourself, even noticing what makes you yawn can be interesting.
This time, we’re looking at the other side of the party, though.
In many cultures, today is a day of sacrifice. It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a 40-day long stretch of reflection, restraint, and for some people, a day to select something they will intentionally go without for the next nearly 6 weeks. The season of flamboyantly cutting loose is deliberately followed by a season of repentance. Why is that? Great question. Are you supposed to feel bad about stepping “out of line”? I’d argue no, but that’s just me, and it’s also slightly beside the point.
Giving something up that you really, really like is hard. It makes you confront powerful forces like craving, habit, and willpower. You can learn a lot about yourself by encountering and not turning away from those uncomfortable experiences, not the least of which is the realization that you can face down and survive all of them (and lots more than that, fwiw). As a proponent of mindfulness, I’m all about all of that, but I also think there’s another way to approach the season.
Instead of (or maybe in addition to) thinking about what you can do without – what you can delete from your life to test your internal strength – what if you flipped the script? What if you spent the next several weeks trying to enhance your life, and the lives of those around you, by adding something into the mix?
I’ll give you an example. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the power of small gestures. Life is hard and most of us default into just getting through, which makes it delightful and surprising and exponentially nice when someone you don’t necessarily know holds a door open for you, compliments your jacket, or makes space for you in the seat next to them. It’s not just kindness, it’s presence. It’s an acknowledgement that you are two human beings sharing space in a given moment, and their gesture treats that simple truth like something that should be honored. It makes the giver feel good through offering, and makes the recipient feel seen and valued. More so, it takes approximately 1% extra effort to create, but whoa, does it multiply out across each person’s day. Pretty amazing ROI, if you ask me.
So, if you’re among those who are inclined to be thinking about what to give up today, don’t let me stop you (and if you’re not, this is NOT about making you feel like you’re supposed to). You may also want to think about some addition along with your subtraction, though, and pondering what you might be able to add to the world that might make some else’s bottom line a little more full. After all, happiness isn’t a zero-sum game; the more you share, the more you have to give, and the more giving you’re likely to do.
When you think about what you want your legacy to be, is it more about what you did for yourself, or others? What’s great about the giving game is that it feeds both, and like any legacy worth its weight, it has a way of carrying on long after we let go of it. In fact, it’s the best kind of “viral,” and if you see it spreading out of hand…well, frankly…you started it.
Photo credit: Chris Rief (Mardi Gras collection)