40 days, 40 nights, no sugar
I love sugar. A box of cookies in my house lasts two days tops. A perfect dinner for me is a bag of Peanut M&Ms and a Creamsicle. I am way too old for this, but I have no control.
Except for 40 days a year. For the last four years I have given up sugar for Lent. No cake, cookies, candy, pie, ice cream, not even jelly on my peanut butter sandwich. I go cold turkey.
The first day isn’t too bad. I am firm in my resolve. The next three are tough. I crave it. I have to take a walk or play the piano, keep my hands and my mind very busy. This year I dreamed about Hershey’s Kisses dancing just out of reach. These are my own particular DTs.
I know sugar is bad for me. I’ve read the articles that say it may increase my risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. My New Year’s resolution is always to give up sugar, but year after year I fail, usually after only three or four days, until Ash Wednesday. Since March 9, there has been an entire box of Girl Scout Thin Mints — my favorite — in my freezer and I haven’t touched it. I’ve wanted to. I’ve stared at it, but then I’ve shut the freezer door.
My family hasn’t stopped eating sugar. The other night, everyone ate ice cream except me, and I was fine. I had a cup of tea. Not once, in four years, have I fallen off the wagon.
I’m not Catholic. I’m not even Christian. I know Catholics traditionally give up meat for Lent, but I’m already a vegetarian, and Thomas Aquinas said we should give up substances that “afford greater pleasure as food.” In my case that would definitely be the stuff that is made from sugar.
The one extra day I give up sweets (and everything else) is Yom Kippur. I’m not Jewish either, but I always fast on Yom Kippur, and it’s not difficult. Twenty-five hours go by without a twinge.
But I can’t do it in secular situations. I tried fasting for one day to protest the proposed Republican budget cuts. This I believe in. I signed up for MoveOn.org’s rolling fast. I made it until 2 in the afternoon, and then I was so hungry I was yelling at people. I made myself a sandwich. And then another.
Instead of fasting, I was over-eating.
Why can’t I fast for a political cause I strongly support when I can do it with no problem during a religious holiday that means nothing to me? If I have some deep psychological need for deprivation that started in my childhood, then any excuse would suffice. It just doesn’t work that way.
Self-deprivation is non-denominational. Every faith practices it. Buddhists talk about mindful consumption. Gandhi said: “Fasting for the sake of unfoldment of the spirit is a discipline I hold to be absolutely necessary.” The Koran 16:128 says: “Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Athletes have fasted and still played full-court basketball during Ramadan. Obviously, there is power in faith, and sacrifice and discipline are universal tenets for getting closer to the divine.
I can’t help but think God has some hand in my Lenten success. I don’t believe in a traditional God — certainly not in a deity that sits in heaven caring whether I eat candy corn for breakfast. He/she/it would have better things to do. On the other hand, I do surrender some part of myself when I give up sugar for Lent and fast for Yom Kippur. And by sacrificing something — denying myself for a period of time — I better appreciate what I usually have.
I contemplate all the good in my life, even without cupcakes. When I’m tempted, I dig down to something greater than myself, a recognition that I am insignificant, that my life is only as important as the people I leave behind. Then it seems ridiculous that I should care so much about a Snickers bar.
Is that Gandhi’s unfolding spirit? Is God with me when I turn down a friend’s home-baked cookie?
I don’t mean to trivialize the spiritual. I’m not talking about God as a diet aid, but about a force that all of us have at our disposal. When we draw on our best selves, the selves that know what is right and good, we find strength. It is right to be aware of all that we consume. It is good to think about those who are less fortunate than we are. It is liberating to put that Snickers bar in its place, however briefly.
Forty days can feel like forever, and I’ve already bought my chocolate bunny. I’m planning how I’ll bite down on its ears — where I always start — then the head, the body, the feet and the sweet little tail.
My sugar renunciation was easier this year than last. I look forward to next year being a breeze. I believe I truly am a stronger person. I am happy to thank God — in whatever form — for that. I also thank God that Lent is almost over.
Diana Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.”