Lent in the Age of the K-Cup
We Americans love excess and panicking about excess. A quiet February can provide a reprieve from both.
This is America, baby, the land of overindulgence and overcorrection. Only here could we have become such a nation of drunks as to actually try to ban alcohol. We popularized tobacco, then we popularized tobacco control. We’re the home of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, the Krispy Kreme doughnut burger, the frosted confetti cupcake Pop Tart for breakfast, and also the membership health club, the fad diet, Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban, Jenny Craig’s personalized weight loss program.
And these are just the vices we’re still familiar with. One of Charles Dickens’s complaints upon visiting Washington, D.C., was that he couldn’t go anywhere without seeing someone spit dip into the street. (Is that how we make America great again? I’m just thinking out loud here…)
G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Americans are the people who describe their use of alcohol and tobacco as vices.” But in America’s (sort of) defense, anything done to excess can become a vice; eat lentils at every meal and they can start to feel like a compulsion, too. The frequency of the thing greatly affects its value, which is worth considering as we enter another Lenten season. Lent is a Christian tradition, a time on the liturgical calendar for abstinence and reflection. Yet, while I’m no kind of integralist, I’ve always thought it should be an American observance as well. It sounds trite to say, but Lent has secular worth. Here in the home of mass consumerism, we could all use a month every year to set down our Bluetooth-compatible Spongebob Snuggies and our Starbucks/Megan Thee Stallion collaboration frappuccino K-Cups and make sure those things are existing for us rather than the other way around.
One frequently heard criticism of Lent is that the sacrifices we make today are too mundane. Christ fasted in the desert for 40 days, some Eastern Christians still go full vegan, and we’re giving up…AirPods? Because we live amid such abundance, any penitence can end up seeming woefully small. Yet this strikes me as the wrong way to look at it. If you listen to your AirPods too much, if your AirPods are disconnecting you from the world, then giving up your AirPods may very well do some good, even if it’s all relative. The point of these abstinences isn’t just to inflict raw suffering (though there’s room for raw suffering); it’s to place our pleasures in their proper context. It’s to remind us that everything has boundaries, that there are some places where AirPods should not tread.
For me, this Lent, it’s to be the unthinkable. I’ve said more than once that I’m going to give up alcohol, only to always end up reneging. “Booze makes me more social!” I declare. “And shouldn’t I be abstaining from something with less communal value (like, say, AirPods)?” But this year is different. COVID-19 has made it far more difficult to go out to restaurant and bars. And while there’s value in a drink or two at home alone—alcohol can enliven one’s inner voice just as much as the voices of others—this eventually starts to sound like an excuse. The bottle’s proper place is at the center of the little patio table surrounded by friends with flushed cheeks and stories to tell, not the cup holder on the living room couch. So away with it for now. (How I’m supposed to cover this news cycle without a glass in hand I have yet to figure out.)
It is at these solitary times that we are most vulnerable to our vices. It’s no coincidence that the devil showed up when Jesus was by himself in the desert. Likewise, we are at most risk when others aren’t on hand to remind us that we should probably stop after that twentieth hot wing. Friends and family can pressure us to give in to our temptations, too, but ultimately it’s community that keeps us upright, that counters that inner diabolical voice. Right now, amid our medically enforced atomization, community can be difficult to find. All the more reason, then, to take it upon ourselves. Bridgerton will still be there in 40 days, and thankfully it will be just as racially diverse as it was before.
There’s nothing wrong with having a guilty pleasure or five, if only because life can need a little brightening up. Yet while it can feel jaunty to read those Oscar Wilde quotes in praise of excess on the pub wall, moderation really is the only way to make it work. Lent gives us an opportunity to reclaim those limits. By forcing us to go cold turkey, Lent lets us negotiate a balance on the other side. And that only makes our pleasures more enjoyable. Here’s to that cold, joyful Easter beer to come.