02 March 2006

Lenten reflections

I received my law school alumni magazine in the mail a couple of days ago (yes, I’m a lawyer, but as I like to say, not in the pejorative sense of the term), and was flipping through the listings in the back where the vast accomplishments of people you went to school with are touted. I ran across this one guy from my class who had just made partner at a big-shot NYC law firm. I thought yeah, I sort of remember him, but I didn’t take much notice of it. Then I flipped back further to indulge my morbid thoughts and checked out the “In Memoriam” section. Yep, you guessed it – that brand new NYC partner was dead. A bit of online research revealed that he had a heart attack.

In case you’re not familiar with New York law firms, here’s a typical workweek for an associate: Start a little late, say around 8:30 or 9:00. Work through lunch. Send out for dinner. Have the firm call you a car to take you home, leaving the office around 9:00 or 10:00 at night. Go home to a tiny apartment in the city, or to a nicer house an hour away. Repeat, six days a week, sometimes seven. Put in 60 to 70 billable hours a week at a minimum if you want to be assured of moving up the partnership track (meaning that you actually have to work 80 hours or more a week). Make really big bucks, but have little or no time to spend them, let alone time to spend with your family. Claw your way up to the corner office, and then fall over dead of a heart attack at your desk.

Sound a bit too stereotypical, or perhaps a bit hyperbolic? In the case of my former classmate, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Now I don’t know what this guy was like – reports I read said that he was a fine fellow with good friends and the like. What I do know, simply by virtue of the partnership he attained, is that he had to give up a whole lot of other experiences in his life to get there, things like time, and a lack of stress.

There’s an old saying – no one lies on his or her deathbed thinking “Damn, I wish I had spent more time at the office”. The teachings of many great spiritual leaders warn of the dangers of trusting in material security. They all mostly parallel the words of one of my favorite contemporary popular philosophers, J. Buffett:

Disregard confession
Stop trying to make impressions
On your corporate climb
It might come as quite a shock
But you can’t really own that rock
It’s just a waste of time

In the Christian calendar, Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which occurred yesterday. Everyone’s familiar with Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, so named because historically it was a time to eat up before the Lenten discipline of fasting. Lent runs until Easter, and the forty days of Lent (they don’t add up, because Sundays don’t count in the forty days; they’re traditionally “feast days”) are to be marked by prayer and fasting, in keeping with the forty days that Jesus was said to have spent in the desert fasting near the beginning of his ministry.

For Christians, Lent is a time of reflection, of contemplation of one’s mortality, of the ephemeral nature of life, a time to reckon and reconcile one’s values and priorities with the way one is actually living. Lent is also traditionally a time where believers “give up” something – in the past, this meant actual total fasts, or fasting one or two days a week. This evolved into a Catholic practice of not eating red meat on Fridays – thus the ubiquity of fish sandwich specials at every single fast food restaurant in South Bend, Indiana during Lent. Other Christians use the time to give up a bad habit – smoking, drinking, cussing, etc. Among the observant, the choice of Lenten sacrifice is often a popular topic of conversation.

But this practice doesn’t have to be limited to Christian believers. I invite each of you this season to consider a personal sacrifice that will improve your spiritual journey. Don’t necessarily think of Lent as “giving up” something either – perhaps what you could “give up” is twenty minutes every morning to meditate. But, if you’re looking for something else as a discipline, may I be so bold as to suggest some things to give up that will improve your spiritual (and physical, for that matter) health? How about giving up your corporate climb, your clawing to the top floor corner office? Give up your commute that requires you to drive two hours a day in execrable traffic and figure out a more sane way of making a living. Give up the notion that material security will bring you happiness, or even security. Give up the quest to buy that bigger house, or that Canyonero SUV. Give up the standards of modern American society that define success in ways that are really whacked. Instead, measure your success in life by the amount of kindness you show to other creatures, human and otherwise. Measure success by the number of dogs and cats you pet, or the aromas and tastes you enjoy, or the sunsets on the beach you experience. Measure success by the laughter and tears you share with family and friends. And give up those things that keep you from achieving that kind of success.

Be at peace.

1 comment:

Michael Vaughan said...

Great post. I've given up meat for Lent this year, which has been good for me. I also am really thinking about and struggling with some of the things you mention towards the end of your post about materialistic goals and wants. It's good to hear about these things from other people of faith.