Ashes, steps, and life
Today is Valentine’s Day. I’m a little bah humbug about it – we should be showing our loved ones how special they are throughout the year, not just on one day.
But it’s also Ash Wednesday for many Christians. It marks the beginning of Lent, a season of 40 days between today and Easter (there’s 46, but Sundays are “little Easters” and don’t count) during which we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Sounds depressing, I know. But it’s actually one of my favorite holy days. Yes, I’m mortal. And frail. And prone to mistakes, if not outright selfishness and pride. You may disagree, but I believe we all are. It’s a problem we’re all aware of and battle in our own ways. And every belief system, from atheism to monotheism to pantheism and everything in between, has had to come up with a solution.
But this isn’t a treatise on religious beliefs. (Some of you are sighing with relief.) I want to talk briefly about how Ash Wednesday, or at least the concept behind it, can help us all. And I’m going to borrow from AA.
Yes, Alcoholics Anonymous (and other 12 step groups). You see, those folks are brave enough to realize and admit they have a problem that they cannot handle on their own. This battle of mortality and morality is a day to day if not minute by minute struggle for those battling addiction. And those of us who think we have it all together can learn something very profound.
Let’s start with Step 1. “We admitted we were powerless…” We don’t like to admit we’re not in control. Many of us go to great lengths to stay in control. Of EVERYTHING. But control of anyone or anything but ourselves is an illusion. And even then it's pretty shaky. I’m not in control of life. And guess what? I don’t have to be. Because…
Step 2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” Call that Power what you will, most of the world believes in something greater than any human individual or even culture. And most also believe in that Power’s benevolence. If Something or Someone greater than I exists, and that Someone or Something is rooting for me, I can relax a little. I can drop the reins. And that’s freeing.
Which is Step 3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Drop the reins. Let go.
Now here’s the kicker. If Someone is on my side, however dimly understood, I CAN let go. I can stop living in fear. There’s a power. A partner. Someone smarter/wiser/bigger/… than me who can help me figure out this thing called life.
I could easily go on – the next steps talk about taking a fearless moral inventory, admitting our faults, making restitution as appropriate, continuing this process, and sharing with others – but let me cut to the chase.
Admitting we are powerless over most of our lives may sound hopeless and depressing, but it’s actually incredibly freeing. How much energy do we waste trying to control the uncontrollable, or taking the blame (or blaming others) for things that we really couldn’t change? How often do we beat ourselves up for not being perfect, for making mistakes, as if we were expected to be omniscient (all knowing) or omnipotent (all powerful)? How many of us believe we are defined by our mistakes and shortcomings or circumstances of nature or nurture more than our innate worth as wonderfully created human beings?
And how many people believe that their mistakes make them flawed and therefore unworthy of deep, true love?
There, I circled around to Valentine’s again. But love truly is one of our most profound needs. It’s something we seem to be designed for.
The lesson behind the 12 steps, and Ash Wednesday, is that I’m not perfect. I can’t be. But that’s ok. Yes, I should admit my mistakes and make amends wherever possible. It doesn’t mean I don’t try my best to live well, for myself and my community. But I can let go the illusion that I can have, or have to have, everything under control and perfect. And I can let others be imperfect too. I can spend all that time and energy and thought somewhere much more productive.
Like in celebrating that Someone loves me. Warts and all.