I’m a horrible faster. And fasting in the Catholic church isn’t even that difficult. It’s not as if we are being asked to eat nothing for an entire day, a reasonable request for those attempting to connect with Jesus during his 40 days in the desert. Instead, we are provided with rules to abide by, in the hope that we will connect as community during Lent. The rule followers get one normal sized meal and two smaller meals, which is certainly plenty of food to successfully make it through a standard day. But I never make it. Never.
By evening, my belly is grumbling and as I sit down to my “normal sized” dinner, I find myself eating and eating, without ceasing. I’m sure there is some symbolism in this, something about how when we fast, we make space for new things, recognizing a newfound hunger within us that must be fed. You know, something churchy. But really, what happens is that I find myself wondering how it is that I’ve failed once again, completely unable to make it through a simple fast day.
This fasting failure of mine means I’ve been looking for different ways to “do Lent” for awhile now. I simply can’t tolerate another 40 days thinking of nothing else but the thing I can’t have. I may gain a little bit of self-discipline, but in no way does it bring me closer to God. It’s not God I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about chocolate. Or coffee. Or, during that one horrible year, my Lenten days were spent rationalizing a meal’s beginning and ending in an attempt to hone in on the definition of an in-between meal snack.
This year, Pope Francis gave me the perfect way out. He asked us to fast from indifference towards others. That, I can do. At least I think I can.
Fasting in this non-concrete way is a little more difficult, though. It’s hard to know if, at the end of the 40 days, we’ve successfully made it or not. Who exactly am I indifferent to in the first place? This fast needed some guidelines.
I’m assuming Pope Francis was calling us to look towards the most overlooked people in the world, the hungry and homeless, the people with little hope for a hand up and little ability to lift themselves from their poverty. He likely was, but I’m also convinced that acting indifferently towards others happens in our lives every single day.
By nature, we’re a tribal people. We like to be understood and to understand, and so we gravitate towards those who are most like us. In the past, this quality has helped humans survive in the world, but I think we’re reaching a time when our human connectedness needs to stretch beyond those who look and act like us.
The thing that stops us, time and again, is fear. When faced with the unknown, we get nervous and scared and we return to the familiar, our tribe. Within our tribe, we find safety, so it makes sense that we retreat when faced with fear. But I’m worried that our tribes are unnecessarily small in the today’s world.
No longer are we retreating to our tribe for survival, instead we retreat because we’re afraid that letting the other in will change our comfortable lives. Fear is the great defender: he waves his hands in front of our face and blocks our view, keeping us from the beauty of the love to be found just beyond. The unknown is scary, but it also holds so much hope and potential. The only way to discover what is there is to focus on love and push fear aside. We can do this. I know we can. It’s time to open up our hearts so that our tribe can grow.
Watching the refugee crisis play out in the news has demonstrated how easy it is to retreat in fear instead of letting love win. So many people have turned their backs on these refugees, fearful of the unknown. They’re afraid that once they enter our country, they will drain our resources. They’re afraid these new arrivals will threaten our people. They’re afraid that letting new and different people into our lives will change them forever. I kind of hope they do. I’m tired of letting fear drive our societal decisions. We have the ability to know so much now, why can’t we seek understanding and let love guide our way?
Love is the one thing I am sure of in this life. Everything we need and want and desire and hope for always leads back to sharing love with others. Because I believe in love and because I believe in Jesus, I also believe that we are called to be God’s love in the world. If love is the one great thing worth having, love is also the one great thing worth sharing, with friends and strangers alike. Our species is wired for connection; it’s time to let our connections multiply.
This Lent, in my fast from being indifferent towards others, my goal is to enlarge my tribe. Ideally, this would mean going out into the world and talking to all sorts of different people so that I can personally hear their stories while looking into their eyes.
Realistically, though, I’m too much of an introvert for spontaneous, meaningful conversations with strangers to actually happen. Instead, I’m seeking other ways. I’ve already expanded my twitter account to follow people who are not like me: people of different colors, backgrounds, genders, and beliefs. I’m also a lover of books, so am on a search for memoirs and stories that will help me understand those who generally fall outside of my current tribal boundaries.
Expanding our tribe can feel a little risky. When we reach out to those who are unlike us, we risk being misunderstood. When we put our love out there for others to take, we risk getting hurt. But if we believe what Christianity teaches, that we are all God’s children with unique gifts and talents, then we already know that we desperately need one another in this world.
A choice to actively care about others, instead of choosing indifference, gives people the gift of recognizing their humanity. They move from feeling like a “them” to feeling like an “us.” This simple act of love takes very little effort. It only requires that we look beyond our fear of the unknown, ready and willing to listen and learn. When we open our hearts, we give ourselves the gift of widening our tribe, while also giving others the space and safety they need to share compassion and love with one another.
Finally, a fast I can embrace — because when you think about it, fasting from indifference feels a lot like feasting on love.