The sight of my marked forehead on Ash Wednesday brings the inevitable question: “What are you giving up for Lent?”
I have a stock answer: Lobster Newburg and healthy thoughts.
Truth is, I genuinely struggle each year, knowing that whatever I choose to give up will be short-lived and followed by a guilt chaser. Yes, I am aware that Lent is not just a period of self-denial but also a time of meditation and contribution. No matter—I fail on both counts, without fail.
This year I gave up swearing … for about 17 hours, until the radiator blew in the Subaru. Pent-up steam came from everywhere, including my ears. Even Mother Teresa would curse the lower hose that won’t budge no matter how hard you yank the son of a bitch.
Instead of prayerfulness and self-denial, apparently I’ve substituted quiet rage and its tricky pal, self-delusion. When people ask about my dark mood, I have a ready excuse: I’m working two jobs—as an instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and at a law firm. “I’m spread too thin.” I shrug, arms out, palms up, as if that explains everything, as if I’m not lord of my own calendar, as if my inability to say “no” is someone else’s fault.
I know now what I’ve given up for Lent: I’ve given up.
I had no intention of fighting through this funk, content to slouch toward ennui or eternity, whichever came first. Then, out of the blue, a reporter called me about Samir Lakhani, a former student of mine and possessor of an incredible story.
On a college trip to Cambodia, Samir saw a mother bathe her child with laundry detergent. Why not soap? Because there is no soap. (I’ll bet when you imagine poverty, you imagine the usual—lack of food, plenty of disease. Now imagine instead the pivotal role played by a single bar of soap.) So Samir did something simple and simply amazing: gathered up unused soap from hotels and sent it to those in need. This idea grew into the Eco-Soap Bank, which saves, sanitizes, and supplies soap to Cambodian schools, orphanages, and hospitals—hundreds of thousands of soap donations to hundreds of thousands of people.
The reporter said, “Sounds like Samir is a hero.”
There was a pause on my end, followed by a longer pause.
“Mark? Are you there?”
“Sorry,” I said through my tightening throat, “I was just thinking about the heroes I’ve known … ,” and for the next ten minutes the pent-up steam from my over-heated heart poured forth—steam in its natural, vaporous, ineffable form that rises heavenward upon its release.
I told the reporter about working (briefly) with Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred was a sickly kid from a small town who grew up to change countless young lives with one simple, simply amazing message: You are loved, and you are lovable. I told the reporter that I now work for Emily Collins—no relation, but I wish—who started Fair Shake, the country’s first nonprofit environmental law firm. Rather than providing purely pro bono legal services (not a sustainable model for a law firm), she charges her clients on a sliding scale depending on their income, so no one is turned away because of an inability to pay. (I know—simple idea. No one ever thought of it.) And speaking of relations, I told the reporter not to get me started on my family—my daughter fighting her way through illness by sheer iron will, or my parents, providing 24/7 care to my quadriplegic/heroic sister for 45 years while simultaneously raising my older brother and raising me … me, who apparently has his own problems, who harbors a stubborn, self-inflicted blindness to the possibilities of redemption and renewal, who would rather drown in his own funk no matter hard you yank at the son of a bitch.
OK, I didn’t say that last part out loud.
What I did say was that yes, Samir is a hero, but so are Emily and Fred and my parents and sister and daughter … not because they’re super human but because they’re so human. They saw the same frailties of a fallen world—things done and left undone—only they chose to act on what they saw.
It can be done. It’s hard work, but it can be done. Somewhere there’s a large rock covering the entrance to a tomb. Apparently no one person can move the rock, but maybe together we can yank that son of a bitch away from the opening and see what simple message pours forth to redeem the pent-up heart of a fallen world.