—after a long, soul-searching period of reflection, The Professor returns to us today with thoughts on a subject of spiritual interest. It's about time, dead-beat.
There are a number of privileges that accrue when one enters the ranks of “geezerhood.” One of the primary privileges is that you can get away with being grumpy…in fact, people almost come to expect it of you. I would argue, though, that it’s not necessarily grumpiness per se that defines a geezer—after all, a geezer has been known to wax rhapsodic about the excitement of spring training (for many of you, I must clarify, I suppose, I am referring to baseball here, not pruning grapevines). So reputation aside, it’s clear that there are plenty of things that geezers are fond of—it's just that those things tend to be outmoded, out of date, or just plain deservedly unpopular. Geezers feel the need to champion many of these things, often grumpily; in a word, many geezers are contrarians. So today, let me unpack the merits of something that most people tend to look at as a pronounced “downer.” I’m referring, of course, to my favorite season: Lent.
Lent, in the Christian calendar, is a time of penitence and spiritual cleansing that occupies the forty days (plus six Sundays to make 46 days total) before Easter. It starts out with a bang on Ash Wednesday, when we are told one of the few public utterances you know instinctively to be true. As ashes are smudged on your forehead, you are encouraged in somber tones to “know that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Were truer words ever spoken? And yet, if you survey your typical member of the population and ask what they think about a season characterized by repentance and recognition of mortality, they’d probably reply (after asking if there WAS such a season and what its name was) “thanks, but no thanks.” And we’re tempted to agree with them; it sounds pretty depressing.
But the contrarian geezer says: “what a wonderful idea!” If I recognize my own mortality, that gives me extra incentive to be thankful for the limited time I do have here.” Good enough so far. But what about all that repentance? The very word would make my esteemed fellow geezer The Mathematician grind his teeth, thinking about the gloomy Lutheranism of his youth. But at its very core repentance is one of the most affirming actions we can take. At the core of repentance is an acknowledgement that we could have (or perhaps SHOULD have) done better.
Oh sure, every once in a while we have to repent for things we really did: the two full cans of cashews that were polished off watching one NCAA tournament game; or for habitually driving 95 miles an hour through rush our in the HOV lane WITH NO ONE ELSE IN THE CAR! Or for the 320,000 dollars you embezzled from your kids’ little league treasury (they shouldn’t have left that much money lying around…) But for the most part, for most of us, most of the time, we repent not for those things that we did wrong, but rather those things that we could have done better, those people whom we might have treated with more respect or caring, or those actions we didn’t take that could have helped the world a bit. We say to ourselves “I could have done better” and in return, we receive the message “that’s right, you could have…keep trying.”
So why do so many of us find this attitude gloomy? My theory is that as a culture we have gotten so used to unconditional approval that an approval that is conditional on our repentence—on our vow to try to do better—is viewed as suspect, disappointing or even hostile. It’s depressing to many of us. But why should we view an encouraging ”you can do better” as depressing? On the surface, those words would appear to be a very affirming vote of confidence.
As a kid, I did well in school, but whether the grade was a C or an A, the feedback I always received was always: “was it your best?” Best is a pretty big word, and I suppose I technically lied (to myself and my parents) a number of times when I responded “yes” to this question. Nonethess, it was clear: part of the “deal” involved with being part of our family was that you strived to do your best. You were praised, but usually with the proviso that you would strive to be even better next time—and our parents had confidence that we could do better.)
So are belief, confidence and encouragement “downers?” They don’t seem to me to be depressing, unless you think you’re already as good as you can get (read: perfect) already. In that case, don’t bother to repent—you’ve got much larger problems to deal with than getting ready for Easter. But for most of us—the visibly, undeniably and sometimes flamboyantly imperfect—the encouragement of repentance might be just the thing we need to get through this gloomy, over-extended winter in which we find ourselves mired.