The Price of Democracy

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blog-picture-2If you’re anything like me, right now, you’re pretty sick of politics. And by “sick of”, I don’t mean “bored with”. I don’t mean that the Superbowl or the upcoming Oscars are being cheated of the attention they deserve, or that I’m annoyed with my Facebook friends who frequently post reactions to current events or links to political articles. No, I mean that I’m sick of politics because current events are so significant. I’m sick of watching upsetting things happen in my country and not being able to do anything about it. I’m sick of hearing antagonistic, even hateful, rhetoric from people that I care about. I’m sick of watching people gobble up and repost not only content with opinions that I disagree with, but often blatant propaganda or “alternative facts”. (For the record, I’d like to point out that I’ve been jokingly using the phrase “creative truth” for years prior to this new terminology.) I’m sick of feeling like there’s nobody out there who has the same set of political values and priorities that I have. And I’m bothered by the realization that all of this vitriol is inevitable.

I expect that history will recall the late 2010’s and early 2020’s as a momentous cultural crossroads in America’s history, and by extension, in world history. The events of these next few years will determine many things about the future of our country. Naturally, Americans are very emotionally invested in politics right now, and naturally, we’re all upset about the problems we see and angry at those who are causing or perpetuating the problems that upset us the most. That’s not very pleasant for any of us. I, for one, would feel much more comfortable ignoring politics completely, or at least spending my life in a bubble that no one can enter unless they have the same political and social priorities, values, and opinions that I do. (Also, there’s a password, just because. Yes, I’ve already chosen the password. No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.)

But we can’t really do that. Not only is it impossible to live inside a literal password-sealed bubble, but it’s also impossible to ignore politics. Sure, you can refrain from participating in any type of political activism, arguing about politics, mentioning politics on social media or even casting your vote on election day. But even if you don’t participate in politics in any way, you can’t entirely ignore it because it defines the world around you. Technically, even the most obvious laws, like the ones about murder and theft, are defined and enforced via government. And it’s the government that ensures every right and freedom you have. Regardless of which laws you do or don’t agree with, which things you do or don’t believe should be considered “rights”, and whether you agree with how your tax money is spent, it’s undeniably true that those things are all factors that impact your life. One freedom that our government does not guarantee you is the freedom from politics. Since our country believes in freedom of speech, it cannot guarantee you freedom from hearing. And since the government cannot control your thoughts, (at least not entirely, at least not yet) you are not free from caring about political issues. The result of this is that you are also not free from political disagreement. That’s the price of democracy.

blog-pictureDuring this 2016-2017 campaign/ election/ inauguration season, I’ve avoided posting much about politics on social media. Not only have I not expressed my support or enthusiasm for any particular candidate, but I haven’t said much about specific issues or discussed which ones are most important to me. Admittedly, that’s partly because I’m an extreme people-pleaser; I don’t want to say things that could damage relationships, even those kinds of not-really-relationships where we haven’t talked in years and never knew each other well, but we’re still Facebook friends. But it’s also because I’m realizing more and more that my political views don’t even come close to aligning with any one political party, and I don’t want people to assume that I agree with stance X just because I expressed my support for an unrelated stance Y that happens to be associated with the same political party. But I’m guessing that most people who have read this far are curious about where I stand, unless they are assuming that they already know. So I might as well finish this post by making a few things clear.

I don’t trust or like Donald Trump. I didn’t like any of the candidates in the 2016 presidential election, but I ended up voting third party because it was, in my opinion, the least bad of several bad choices. I’m decidedly pro-life, but also very anti-misogyny, and I’m pretty horrified at some of the things I’ve heard people say about women and justify with “because I’m conservative” or “I guess I’m just old-fashioned.” I’m anti-illegal-immigration but pro-legal-immigration, so I want to see policies that facilitate legal immigration rather than policies that block entire demographic groups from crossing the border. I definitely agree that “Black Lives Matter,” but there have been some unacceptable things done in the name of that movement. I believe that the Muslim religion is incorrect, but I also consider it contrary to foundational American values to discriminate or segregate based on religion. I believe that any economic system (communism, socialism, capitalism…) would work well if everyone was honest and moral, but no economic system works perfectly because there will always be some people who find ways to take advantage of the system for personal gain. In general, I think history shows that there are more advantages than disadvantages to international trade and minimal restrictions and regulations, especially on small businesses. I agree that it’s positive for the government to play some role in ensuring quality of education, labor conditions, and health care, to provide some types of welfare for the underprivileged, and to offer funding for things such as scientific research, arts, and (obviously) public libraries, but I also think that most of those systems and programs are either overly-regulated, inefficiently-budgeted, or seriously flawed in some other way. I could go on, but I’ve already said enough in this paragraph to risk defeating the point of this blog post.

You can agree with me or you can disagree with me, and you can ignore me or discuss these things with me. (If you do, I’d appreciate if you’d keep it relatively polite and non-aggressive, please and thank you) Maybe, you can even cause me to reconsider some of my political views. But one thing that you cannot do is live in a society where we all have the right to be involved in politics and we all agree and get along. That just isn’t the way it works.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2016

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I know it’s been ages since I’ve posted on this blog. And even now that I finally am back here clicking that “Publish” button again, it’s just a reblog from my other blog. But this is something I spent a lot of time compiling, and besides, my 2014 list and 2015 list made their first appearances on Kaleidoscope49. It only makes sense to stick the 2016 list here, too. So feel free to ignore this post or to read it thoroughly and then find and read all of the books that pique your interest. And hopefully, I’ll be back with more new posts sometime soon.

Particularly Awesome Books of 2016

This list has been a long time in coming. Not only have I spent an entire year reading a whole lot of children’s literature and keeping a running list of books that I especially liked, but it’s tak…

Source: Best Books of 2016

25 Years Old

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I was born on September 6, 1991. Thus, today is my 25th birthday. Rather than going into a ramble about how I feel about being 25, I thought that an interesting way to observe my birthday online would be to compile a list of other interesting things that are turning 25 this year. As it so happens, though, I didn’t really participate in ‘90s pop culture. I’m not even familiar with many of the movies, TV shows, songs, and albums that came out when I was a kid. But here are a few things my age that do mean something to me.

Books

For those of you who don’t know anything about me, I’m a librarian, so this is the obvious place to start this list. I had thought I could pull together a much longer list of 1991 books that I’ve read, but this is what I found with a moderate amount of googling. (The NoveList website appears to be temporarily down, which is annoying.)

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

My parents gave me this book for my birthday when I was a child; I think it was my eleventh birthday. It’s a Norwegian book about a teenager named Sophie Amundsen who starts receiving mysterious letters about philosophy. Over the course of the novel, Sophie learns about the history of philosophy from ancient times up to the late twentieth century and discovers the strange truth about the reality in which she lives. I very much enjoyed this book and have read it a number of times over the past fourteen years.

Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes

Apparently, I really loved this book when I was little. I don’t distinctly remember that, and I don’t even remember what happens in the story, but I do have a vague sense of long-term positive associations with Henkes’ mouse books.

Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Okay, time for a confession. I’ve never read Shiloh. I know, it’s a classic, and it even won the Newbery medal. I should have read it as a child and I should have read it as a children’s librarian. But I still haven’t read it, so I don’t actually have anything to say about it.

If You Give a Moose a Muffin by Laura Numeroff

It’s not quite as noteworthy as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, but it’s still a really good picture book. I vaguely remember hearing Numeroff books in library storytimes. For the record, her books are still popular among preschool-aged kids. Last I knew, my cousin’s daughter was fond of them.

Bone by Jeff Smith

This graphic novel is the first in a series that, as a children’s librarian, I can tell you from personal experience is still immensely popular. To be honest, I really didn’t care for this book and I never bothered to read the rest of the series. I think it’s a genre preference thing, and this just isn’t the type of story that appeals to me. I actually hadn’t known that it had been around for so long.

Meet Felicity by Valerie Tripp

The American Girl series played a really large role in my childhood. My mother started reading the books to me and my sister as bedtime stories. I think we were about six at the time. As I got older, I read and reread the American Girl books so many times that it became a personal tradition, and I was still reading them for nostalgia purposes in my late teens. When I was little, I don’t remember having a particular affinity for Felicity, (for any of you unfamiliar with the American Girls franchise, Felicity is a nine-year-old girl living in colonial Virginia) but as an adult, I think that Felicity is notable for the character development she shows across the sub-series about her. The American Girls were such a big thing in the ‘90s that sometimes I feel as if it’s strange that not everyone is familiar with them now.

Movies and TV shows

I don’t watch a lot of ‘90s TV. For this list, I’m only including movies and TV shows that I’ve actually seen, and that eliminates a lot of stuff that’s actually really famous, like Terminator 2 and the show Seinfeld, which debuted in 1991. But there are at least four 1991 movies that I’ve seen, which are as follows:

Beauty and the Beast

I remember Beauty and the Beast  as one of those classic Disney movies that has literally always been around. But it hasn’t been around forever. In fact, I was around for eleven weeks before Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was. I had been completely unaware of that fact until I started looking things up for this blog post.

Drop Dead, Fred

At one point a couple years ago, I would sometimes watch full-length movies on youtube late at night, and this was one that I discovered on one such occasion. It’s about a woman who starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend after going through rough times and moving back in with her mother. Although Fred, the imaginary friend, is goofy and acts like a character in a light-hearted children’s movie, I wouldn’t classify this as a kids’ movie. I wouldn’t rank it anywhere near the top of the list of my favorite movies, but it definitely has a few good one-liners.

Star Trek VI:: The Undiscovered Country

I know I’ve seen this one, but to be honest, I don’t specifically remember what happens in it. I do know that it isn’t nearly as good as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. But really, when it comes down to it, there aren’t many things out there that are as good as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

What About Bob?

Bob Wiley suffers from severe phobias until his new psychiatrist somehow cures him with just a brief, cliché-ridden consultation. But now Bob is obsessed with Dr. Leo Marvin and follows him to his vacation home. Through a series of comedic events, Bob simultaneously makes Dr. Marvin miserable and endears himself to everyone else. The title role is played by Bill Murray. It’s very entertaining, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the “bad guy”. Dr. Marvin may be flawed and self-centered, but he doesn’t deserve all the terrible things that happen to him in this movie.

Music

I spent way too much time searching for music I recognized from 1991, and I sure didn’t find much. I do know some ‘90s music, but just by coincidence, hardly any of it is from ’91. It’s actually kind of weird.

(Everything I Do) I Do it For You by Bryan Adams

Since my parents still listened to current pop music at the time when I was born, I have been informed many times that this song was #1 when I was born. It also happened to be the biggest hit of the year. To be honest, I don’t really like it. I’m not the biggest fan of ‘90s music in general.

Don’t Cry by Guns N’ Roses

I definitely didn’t know this song when I was a kid. But I know it now, so on the list it goes. It’s a good song. I like it.

You’re in Love by Wilson Phillips

The only reason I know this song is that it’s on a cassette tape that my father recorded to celebrate Christmas. In fact, the chorus is the only part that I know at all. I’m actually a little confused as to whether this is actually a ’91 song. Youtube says 1990, but my Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits says 1991. Maybe it was on an album before it came out as a single?

Other

Dr. Seuss died on September 24. That’s right, folks, for eighteen days, Dr. Seuss and I were alive at the same time. Other notable deaths include British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and Gilligan’s Island actress Natalie Schaeffer.

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the United States. I’m not much of a gamer, but I recognize that this was a significant cultural event. I have no idea, though, what distinguished the 1991 Nintendo from the 1985 Nintendo.

The internet became a thing. Actually, the development of the internet was a gradual process that spanned over a significant portion of the late 20th century. But the first web browser was created in 1991, and that’s a pretty significant milestone. If I understand correctly, that’s what really made the internet accessible to the public rather than just to computer experts. The web browser was called WorldWideWeb, but later named Nexus because it’s kind of confusing that WorldWideWeb and the world wide web aren’t the same thing. Nexus no longer exists.

Many of the biggest news events of the year had to do with the Gulf War, but the biggest political change with the end of the Soviet Union. Depending upon which events one defines as the birth of an independent country, one could say that I share a birthday with Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. (But it probably makes more sense to go with the late August dates.)

On the Olympics

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Olympics 1The Olympic games are important, y’all. They’re an international tradition, they’re good entertainment, they’re an opportunity to learn things about other places, they bring well-deserved attention to athletes who have worked hard for their achievements, and they’re an occasion for us to take pride in our country instead of arguing about politics and worrying about our nation’s future. I’m not trying to say that it’s everyone’s patriotic duty to drop everything and dedicate two weeks of your life every couple of years to watching the Olympics; most of us have lots and lots of other important things going on in our lives. But I think it’s a positive thing when people get excited about the Olympics, and it bothers me when others criticize or make fun of the Olympics.

When the Olympics started last week, I decided that I wanted to write a blog post about how cool the Olympics are. I wasn’t sure when I’d get around to doing it, (this summer has been a really crazy time in my life) and I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to say, but it seemed like something worthy of a blog post. I was thinking maybe I’d just ramble about some memories I have of Olympics in the past. I definitely have a lot, since my family always put a lot of emphasis on watching the Olympics. Even though we didn’t watch much of any TV at any other time, when the Olympics were on, our daily schedules were completely dominated by the television coverage of the games. I was used to admiring the athletes’ talent and dedication, appreciating the international and multicultural nature of the games, and enjoying the spirit of friendly, respectful competition between countries. Yes, I am aware that there have been instances of less than perfect sportsmanship in the Olympics, but it’s always seemed to me that those are the exceptions rather than the rule. And I guess I always assumed that more or less everyone held the Olympics in high regard.

Olympics 2The other day, I saw a youtube video that bothered me. (Here’s the link, if you want to see it)  I’ve come across videos from this channel before, and normally I find them pretty funny. Most of the ones I’ve seen have satirized cultural trends that I agree are pretty ridiculous. But this video is about the Olympics. I’m not going to address it point by point because a) this blog post could get pretty long if I did, and I want to finish writing it by suppertime, and b) some of his points are probably valid. I think what bothered me about it is that he portrays Olympic athletes as victims. When he talks about gymnastics, he accuses gymnasts’ parents of being abusive by “living through” their high-achieving children and insinuates that elite gymnasts are traumatized by their intense training. And later, when he talks about swimming, he says that the reason Michael Phelps is back in the pool is that he doesn’t know what else to do with his life. He repeatedly makes the implication that the viewing public is taking advantage of our miserable athletes by getting enjoyment out of the successes that they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

I don’t know the exact backstories of every individual athlete, and I can’t read their thoughts or emotions, so I’m not going to try to insist that everyone who’s ever competed in the Olympics has enjoyed the experience and gone on to live happily ever after. In fact, I know it’s true that people who work hard enough to get that good have made a lot of sacrifices in their lives. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so admirable. And I’m sure that it’s tough to be a former Olympic-level athlete who has to shift gears and work towards other goals and focus on academics or a career or family. But throwing around words and phrases like “abusive” and “traumatized” and “inevitable emptiness of the rest of his life” is unnecessarily negative. Most of these athletes work so hard because they love their sport, and I suspect that most of them mean it when they talk about how happy they are to be at the Olympics and when they say that their hard work has been worth it.

Of course, there’s a lot that could be said about personality traits and the psychological nature of perfectionism and competitiveness. I’m not an expert in sports psychology, or even general psychology, but I do know that people who are overly perfectionist often have a tendency to work harder than is healthy, emotionally or physically. Although I’m obviously not an Olympic athlete, I am an extreme perfectionist and I can attest to the fact that it can hold you back in a lot of ways, even if it’s (at least in the short term) pushing you ahead in other ways. And it’s probably true that most Olympic athletes are perfectionists, which is how they got that good in the first place. I definitely acknowledge that there’s a degree of truth in the concept that high-achieving athletes face emotional struggles even beyond the pressure and nerves associated with the actual competition. But I definitely don’t agree with the way that topic is expressed in this video. Because it’s not true that these athletes have dedicated an entire lifetime of hard work into a fleeting moment of glory, only to go home to meaningless lives. I would hazard a guess that the glory lasts for a lot longer than a moment, and that there are other goals to pursue after the Olympics.

Olympics 3

Also, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how incredible the American women’s gymnastics team is, and Simone Biles in particular? I mean, she’s so good that this was barely even a contest this year.

So I hope that most of you reading this post have gotten to see at least some coverage of the Olympics. I hope that you’ve enjoyed cheering for your country and your favorite athletes. I hope that you’ve learned something about Brazil and/or some of the other places you’ve heard about. And I hope that instead of pitying the athletes because you think their achievements are pointless, you’ve been impressed or even inspired by their accomplishments.

Socrates vs. Literacy

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Socrates_Pio-Clementino_Inv314.jpgReading is among the most important skills that people can learn. It is necessary in school and in most types of jobs, it is a valuable source of information, and it is a wonderful form of entertainment. As a librarian, I consider it part of my job to promote literacy and the enjoyment of reading. But literacy as we know it has not existed for all of human history. I wrote a post a few days ago on my other blog about the history of literacy. In the process of pulling together my facts, I came across a few fun tidbits that didn’t make it into that post. One of the most interesting was a list of reasons that the great philosopher Socrates opposed written language.

Socrates lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C. At that time, the Greek alphabet existed and many Athenians were literate, but reading and writing were not as widespread as they were a couple generations later. Socrates is known for his oral discourse. He would converse with people on the streets, mainly by asking questions. Most of what we know about him comes from Plato, who was his student. Plato wrote extensively, but Socrates himself did not record any of his philosophical ideas.

Socrates’ back-and-forth method of philosophizing leads to one of his concerns with the written word. Written language is more permanent and unchanging than the spoken word. In a conversation, you can ask questions and give answers, you can clarify what someone else meant, you can amend what you have previously said or inform others that you have changed your mind. Of course, you can do any of those in things in writing, but the original book or essay or facebook post still exists in its original, inflexible state. Of course, Socrates didn’t anticipate the internet, where conversation can happen via written word in real time, and where posts can be edited. If he had, maybe that would have somewhat satisfied him on this point.

However, another one of Socrates’ complaints is something that is even more valid in the days of the internet than it was in his own time. Socrates put a lot of emphasis on Truth with a capital T. He believed in the importance of knowledge, which didn’t just mean knowing facts, but having a thorough understanding of Truth. Knowing a lot of factual information was, in Socrates’ eyes, a superficial form of knowledge. But it is that type of knowledge that is most easily transferred via books. By making information readily available to all people, we encourage a look-it-up mentality which, to Socrates, is very inferior to the seeking of wisdom. Although Socrates is known to have a very egalitarian view, he feared the idea of making information accessible to the “wrong people”. Even worse, the written word isn’t necessarily true, but someone who is just quickly looking up a fact is easy to fool. That’s where the internet is worse than books. Since anyone can post things online, the internet is full of quick facts without context and false information.

Finally, when people learn to rely on written language, it affects their ability to remember oral language. Although the Greeks are remembered for their contribution to written language, they also had a very strong oral tradition. As in many non-literate cultures, they remembered their history and their folklore by telling and retelling the stories, and therefore, individual people had to develop the skill of remembering words with great accuracy. Many making that information more quickly accessible, writing things down decreases the need for that kind of memorization.

In my opinion, Socrates’ concerns are valid, but the advantages of literacy outweigh the disadvantages. It’s true that the written word is less flexible than the spoken word, but sometimes, that’s a good thing. It’s true that the ability to read makes it possible for people to gain very superficial knowledge, but superficial knowledge is better than ignorance. It’s true that relying on written language decreases the ability to remember oral culture—and that is perhaps the most compelling argument ever made against written language—but the ability to remember things with absolute accuracy is sometimes more valuable than the ability to remember things without any help.

In our own time and culture, it would be unheard of for someone to claim that literacy is a bad thing. I don’t think I’ve said anything controversial by disagreeing with Socrates on this point. But it is interesting to stop and think about his objections and just how sensible they are. As cultures change over the centuries and millennia, our methods for storing and sharing information have naturally changed, and they will probably continue to change. (I, for one, do not think that the print book is on its way out anytime soon, but perhaps in another two thousand years, it will be.) For any change as major as that, there will be downsides. And as far as Socrates’ concerns go, it’s interesting to note that we wouldn’t be able to remember and discuss his ideas if Plato hadn’t written them down.

Happy Leap Day!

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February-29th-CalendarOnce upon a time, there was no such thing as the month of February. Februarius, as it was originally called, was invented around 700 BC by Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. The month was named for Februa, a festival of purification probably originating from Sabine culture. (The Sabines were one of many tribes that lived in ancient Italy) Februa fell on February 15. Even then, February had 28 days, although most months had an odd number of days because that was believed to be lucky.

Because the calendar was 355 days, which is not the exact same length as the solar year, it was necessary to sometimes add a month between February and March, known as the mensis intercalaris. (As a side note, Plutarch, a famous writer in the first century, referred to the intercalary month as Mercedonius.) Years with that extra month would be 377 or 378 days. But the system had its shortcomings. Evidently, the decision about which years needed an extra month was often made for political reasons, allowing political officials to stay in office for an extra month. And the common people didn’t necessarily know ahead of time, with the result that it was hard to keep track of the date. Clearly, calendar reform was in order.

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in the year now known as 46 B.C. That particular year is called the Year of Confusion because he made the year 445 days long in order to put all the seasons back where they belong in the calendar. Then, in 45 B.C., things were back on track with a 365-day year. Even then, there was such as thing as leap day, owing to the fact that the Earth actually takes about 365.25 days to orbit the sun. But “about” isn’t good enough. Every year, a discrepancy of 11 minutes and 14 seconds was added.

By 1582, this discrepancy had added up so much that Pope Gregory XIII solved it by deleting ten days during October. It was also Pope Gregory XIII who determined that February was the month to gain an extra day during leap year. He was even responsible for the terms “leap year” and “leap day”.  In order to keep that discrepancy from continuing to occur, leap day no longer occurs in years ending with 00 unless they are divisible by 400. Thus, 2000 was a leap year, but 1900 was not and 2100 will not be. This results in leap years occurring at the right frequency to keep the average length of the year accurate… almost. The Gregorian calendar still has an extra 26 seconds per year.

February 29 St BrigidBecause of its infrequency, a number of legends and customs have arisen around leap day. According to Irish legend, St. Brigid and St. Patrick agreed that on leap day, women can propose to men. In some parts of Europe in the middle ages, if a man refuses a woman’s proposal on leap day, he must buy her twelve pairs of gloves to hide the embarrassment of her lack of an engagement ring. In Scotland, it is supposedly unlucky to be born on leap day, and in Greece, it is unlucky to get married on leap day, or even in a leap year.

Whatever you do to celebrate this extra day in the calendar, have a happy leap day!

Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

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