Earlier this week, I attended my church’s Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days of preparation before Easter, and a season which I barely knew existed when I was growing up. My family attended a church that was less “structured church calendar” and more “aging (former) university students philosophically pondering God,” so I hadn’t really encountered it. When I was in my early twenties, though, I started attending an Anglican church, and suddenly, Lent became A Thing.
My new church did a beautiful job of emphasizing the spiritual significance of the Lenten season, but my main memory of those early encounters with Lent is what I chose to give up. Lent is often portrayed in popular culture as a time to give up things that you enjoy, and this was definitely true of me. Sugar, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, etc. – I have given up all these items during one Lenten season or another – during one particularly memorable Lent while I was in university, I gave up chocolate AND coffee, my two favourite vices. I’m amazed that my roommate was still speaking to me by the end of that episode (sorry, Cherie).
But as Lent has become less of a novel concept to me, I want to go beyond simply embarking on a religiously-inspired health kick. At the Ash Wednesday service, my pastor suggested that if we want to give something up for Lent, it should be something that gets in the way of our connection with God. This made me reconsider my choices more carefully – while chocolate and caffeine may have an impact on my physical health, I can’t say that they have ever had a major impact on my spiritual health. In fact, the things that tend to have the greatest impact on my spiritual life aren’t “things” at all. They’re usually the intangibles: thought patterns, habits, attitudes. So this Lent, I am asking God to help me “give up” one of these intangibles: my need for control.
If I had been asked to list my negative attributes pre-parenthood, “controlling” isn’t the first one that would have come to mind. Not because I wasn’t controlling, but because that streak was hidden better in those days, even from me. But now that I have Zoe, I can’t deny that I desperately want to control life. I’m guessing that most new parents experience this: when you are responsible for a vulnerable child, the world is suddenly full of danger, and you feel like a piece of your heart is walking around (well, lying around) outside your body. You would do anything to protect her. And so you try to control everything in her environment. “Maybe if I breastfeed her and we put her to sleep on her back and swaddle her/don’t swaddle her and vaccinate her/don’t vaccinate her and check on her neurotically during the night, then she’ll be ok.” But it quickly becomes obvious that no matter how careful you are, and no matter which guidelines you follow, there is no guarantee that your baby will always be safe. At some point, it is simply out of your control.
This points to a larger truth: I am never truly in control. There may be areas of my life that give me the illusion of control, but it is just that: an illusion. I have the ability to make choices, but I can’t control the outcomes. I can’t guarantee that my child will always be safe, I can’t guarantee my own success or health or even if I’ll be alive tomorrow. I can continue to cling to control, and attempt to manipulate the world around me, or I can acknowledge that I was never in control in the first place. Zoe is a daily reminder that when I cling to control, I become a neurotic mess. I have to let go.
And so my Lenten discipline is remembering that I am not in control of my life, or of Zoe’s. It is asking God to replace my grasping need for control with trust that He is in control. It is consciously placing my life and Zoe’s life in His hands, knowing that they were already there to begin with. It’s much harder than giving up chocolate.