Give Up Prideful Self-Improvement This Lent

There are two obstacles to holiness: You and other people. You are an obstacle because you are too self-involved. They are an obstacle because they are not lovable enough to break you out of your self-involvement.

March 2 is Ash Wednesday, and I am going to take that on this Lent. In this time of individualism, isolation, and polarization, I’m going to give myself for Lent. After decades of “me time” and “treat yourself” topped off by sound-canceling headphones and wireless earbuds connected to personal entertainment devices, Lent is a great time to start re-orienting yourself.

First: Realize Lent was created to wean yourself from yourself.

Every year we hear the warning, because every year we need to. Lent is not a time to diet and exercise to look your best — but it also isn’t a time for “spiritual body-building” either, becoming “the best version of yourself” for our own sake only.

It is a time to better fulfill the ultimate two commandments: Love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself. You do that through Prayer, building your love for God; Almsgiving, building your love for others; and Fasting, putting the kibosh on your self-love.

The most effective method I have found to do those things is to give something up, then take the time and money you save and spend it on God and others.

Second: Identify what traps you in self-centeredness.

Next time you pray, bring paper and pen. Make two columns on a piece of paper.

On one, list the things you give your heart to — the material things and concrete activities that most entice and excite you and that eat up most of your time: Food, wine, and other spending will be there. So will various forms of entertainment and time wasters: Social media, YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon.

On the second column, list the things you most daydream about or wallow in,  whether they be “escape” fantasies, “If I only had X” daydreams, or “improvement plans I never get to” — think of negative tendencies like  “brooding over injury,”  and “inappropriate memories I cling to” and positive desires like “I need to spend more time with my family” or “I need to reach out to that friend who is hurting” or “I need to serve at the parish.”

Now, what are the connections between the two lists? Do I daydream about a better life and watch movies of more perfect lives? Do I dream of improvements I never make, and obsessively watch YouTubes of sports or fashion stars who have it all together? Do I stress watch, stress drink, or stress eat?

Draw lines between items that are related. Then, in prayer, decide what to quit and what to allow, based on what motivates you and what drags you down.

Third: Instead of deciding what to give up, decide what to re-direct.

Once you have decided which time and money wasters to give up and which to keep, decide what to do with the time and money.

The Five Love Languages is a great place to go for ideas. Gary Chapman’s book is a modern classics of the self-help genre that practically everybody has heard about. Originally meant for married couples, the book lists the ways we love others and the way they “feel” loved. He later expanded those concepts to include families and other communities.

The five “love languages” are:  Words of affirmation (compliments and encouraging words), quality time (spending time with someone — without phones, but with eye contact and real listening), giving gifts (needed things or nice things), acts of service (odd jobs or errands), physical touch (hugs, backrubs — but also doing a job together).

For this Lent, list what “love language” your friend, spouse, or children most need and plan a good deed for every day of the week. Spend the time and money you save and spend it on God and others.

By the time Lent ends, if you play your cards right, you will be ready to double down on “other-centeredness” this Easter.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.