It is Ash Wednesday. In the Christian calendar, this day inaugurates the fasts of Lent. This is holy time, a period of 46 days of cleansing and purging the body and soul before the celebration of Easter. The time echoes the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert before he went to his death. Originally, this purification was for penitents and grievous sinners, those who were cut off from the Eucharist and were obliged to undergo public penance before being welcomed back into the fold on Maundy Thursday. But by the 10th century this rite had fallen out of favor. Instead, the entire congregation was daubed with the penitential ashes — for a day — and then followed a strict fast of no meat and only one meal — also for a day. Between Ash Wednesday and Easter, the fast is loosened for much of the week, but each Friday is another day of abstinence in remembrance of Good Friday. The ashes are also a memento mori for each congregant. These are the palms from the previous Palm Sunday, burned and ground into the dust that each of our bodies will return to in the end.
I am not of this faith. I don’t accept that this world is cursed with sin and in need of a sacrificial cure. However, I do honor many Church traditions, among them Lent, partly because Christianity has many good lessons for humanity and the way to learn these lessons is through participation in the ritual time of the Church. However, there are also many Christian traditions that are older than the Church, among them Lent. The name lent derives from an Old English word meaning “spring season”. Other languages name this 40-day period before Easter with words that derive from “fasting”. We can see from these names that Lent is not merely a season of preparation for the Christian Easter. In fact, its symbology and its name have little to do with Christianity. (Interestingly, the same is true of Easter itself.) Lent — or to give it its true name, Spring — is the traditional season of doing without intentionally.
Spring, the season of renewed abundance, is preceded by a time of voluntary abstinence to purge the body of winter lethargy, to draw on the strength of soul hunger, to focus our needs and cast away want. Time for sloughing off our winter flesh. We diet; we cleanse; we purge our lives of superfluous encumbrance. Consider this near universal human spring-time urge. We humans renew ourselves through restraint; we prepare for growth by accepting limits.
To some extent, this is making a virtue of necessity. Spring is the time of renewal, but there are still many weeks before that new growth produces new foodstuffs. Growth is not yet productive. What is available tends to be high in nutrients but low in caloric content — bitter greens and roots, wonderful tonic to the digestive tract but not the most filling fare. So, yes, spring fasting is not completely voluntary in traditional cultures. But the impulse to give up something for Lent goes beyond food. Lent is giving up luxury and excess during a time of dearth. Nobody feasts while there is famine. This is a self-imposed limit that creates communal equity and balance in society. We all give up some things, especially the more sumptuous cravings, to ensure that everybody has enough. That so many people accept these voluntary limits on consumption is evidence that our humanity still pulses through society. We are not completely heartless yet. We still have a collective soul.
I believe that we need to take this willingness to fast in spring and transmute it into a system of daily living. I believe this is how we will save ourselves from our selves. To engineer a society that will not destroy this planet, we need to become reacquainted with abundance that is not based on ever-greater levels of consuming the world’s resources. We need to viscerally feel our effects on the earth and on each other. We need to remember that we enjoy our work when work is not done solely to earn monetary income. We need a shared focus and shared traditions to bind us together, so that when we need to get down to the business of fixing all these messes, we turn to each other and cooperate. We need a routine, so that beneficent behavior is reflexive and does not depend on conscious decisions made by our monkey-brained selves — who almost without exception will choose short-term reward over all else, even personal long-term pain.
Yes, we need ritual and rhythm. We need to feel the wonder and deep connection that comes with an earth-based annual round of celebration and work. We need the surety of gathering eggs in spring and harvesting apples in autumn. We need to know what needs to be done when and why that is so. We need understanding of our planet, intimate knowledge of our place on this earth. We need forward focus. No more living irresponsibly in the moment. We need to have a framework for planning and decision-making that includes all those who have no voice now — those in the present with no agency and those in the future who are not yet born.
Our ancestors knew the value of limits. We need to live like them, live ethically once again. And that means living within some structure, within limits. Ethics are the voluntary limits we accept in order to live as a society. Ethics are how we act within the world harming none. There are physical limits to our material cultures, and we need to learn to recognize and joyfully embrace them. In practice we must incorporate these real-world limits into the ethical systems we create to limit our own actions — so that we do not take more than the planet has to give. We have lived as though there is no limit to our wants, no need for care, no desire to do life or be anything but passive receptors. We have lived like there is no future. Living in this manner is making that self-fulfilling; we are destroying the future by living limitless in the present.
It is not, as those who benefit from our system would have us believe, painful or even limiting to accept limits. Limits and ethics are boundaries that free us. We are freed of the externalities, all these harmful things that will happen when we act as though our actions have no harmful effects. There may be a few people who benefit superficially from selling billions of tiny bits of plastic, but only superficially — because even those who make money do not escape the negative effects of living in a world damaged by their own actions. To accept limits on their actions, to not do things that harm themselves and everything else, incurs far more reward and gives all of us more choice in living. Limits are liberating. You live better and with fewer constraints on health and welfare and what actually does generate real wealth if you accept limits, if you accept that you can’t do the things that make all that impossible.
This is why humans have always had ethics. Yes, we’ve spent most of our existence arguing about those limits, but until recently we’ve accepted that they exist — precisely because it is more beneficial to forego some things. Like “thou shalt not kill”. Remember that one? Maybe not very popular these days, maybe never was. But this is an ethical limit on behavior that, true, might result in some people not getting everything they want, but that on balance spreads benefit.
Now, what does this have to do with linking a life to place and to season? What do ethics have to do with ritual? How does a seasonal round of celebration put limits on our behavior? And are those limits what we need?
Well, first there’s the the obvious. Ritual holds our attention and creates a pleasurable and meaningful rhythm to life. In Lean Logic, David Fleming reminds us that repetitive celebratory ritual is how most human societies have dealt with the problem of ethical social cohesion throughout our existence, very likely before our existence, quite simply because the comforting structures of ritual make us happy. Ritual speaks to humanity in ways that pure logic does not because ritual appeals to the whole human — emotions, senses, bodily experience, belief. I can blather on propounding absolute verifiable fact at you all day long to no effect. But if I make you feel it, it becomes your truth. To convince the monkey brain to act in urge-restraining ways, we have to capture the imagination of that monkey brain and keep it busy. Ritual, celebration, living joyfully immersed in the tangible world — these things are all very pleasurably distracting! In these time-honored traditions, we find the perfect toolkit for ethical living.
Does this toolkit build the world we want? Are these the ethics we need for the future we face? Humans have flourished within the limits of celebratory seasonal, place-based living; but will this continue to be true? I might ask the opposite. In these last few centuries — the time of the limitless, untethered self — has anyone ever thrived? We have made many wondrous things, but have we derived happiness from them? Or true wealth? Or universal justice? Have we even met our basic bodily needs? If “we” includes the majority of humanity, then the answer is no. We are not thriving. If “we” includes the planet and the future, then our unethical social structures have been a catastrophic failure. It might be logical to choose the system that fosters well-being over the one that so patently does not.
But what do we need from a system of ethics in order to meet the challenges we face? The first order answer is that we need restraint. We need to accept limits, full stop. All of us. We need goals and aspirations that are not tied to consuming as much as possible of the world, some of us consuming more than is possible by stealing from what is possible for others. Living in season is a restraint. Living in place is a restraint. You will not have some options. You will no longer eat fresh tomatoes in winter. You will no longer fly to Cancun on a whim. You will no longer participate in the economy of disposable stuff. But you will no longer want to.
You will want to watch the sunset over your garden every day, giving thanks for another day of good living. You will want to knit a sweater from wool that came off the back of an alpaca you have met. You will want to fill your belly with fresh bread and potato-leek stew in deep winter. You will want to walk to the local pub and enjoy the comfort of music, friends and regional brews. You will want to nurture a tree into big beautiful leafy vibrancy. You will want to talk to chickadees. You will want to get up at 2am to watch meteorites streaking across the sky, holding hands with a person who does not need conversation from you to know the joy you are feeling. You will want to mark the time in a continual dance of ritual celebration with well-worn steps your feet remember and your soul rejoices in. This is what accepting the limits of seasonal, place-based living will bring you. I promise you this.
It is good to take on some restriction during this Lenten season. It reminds us of all the abundance that we gain from living within ethical limits.