Last Sunday I watched as many of my friends indulged in that which they had given up for what were 40 surely long days: chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, late-night eating and Facebook. Currently, I write this as I nibble a dry piece of Matzo and dream about any and all things leavened.
Both Easter and Passover provide a sort of somberness, in the form of abstinence, that connects us to God (whoever or whatever that may be) and more importantly, our religion. By actively changing our day-to-day habits (either for eight days or a more ambitious forty), we are constantly reminded “I am religious, this is important to me.” Before Passover, Jews cleanse their homes of chametz, the forbidden leavened food. The spiritual withdrawal of Lent presumably provides the same purification, however, as I sat and watched my friends chain smoke in celebration at Easter brunch (no judgment as I will surely be eating all kinds of wheat products on Saturday), I wonder whether the active abstinence is less about God and, somewhere along the nicotine-deprived trek to holiness, becomes more about willpower and the pursuit of our goals. While observing Passover and keeping Lent have two different purposes, the tiring act of mental and behavioral control in order to achieve some goal is shared.
I believe, certainly for me, and I’d venture to guess for many other moderately religious folk as well, that keeping Passover or Lent becomes less of a day-to-day connection with God and more of a subconscious game with oneself. As humans, we constantly weigh long-term and short-term goals and decide which, at any given time, is most important to us. For example, when during Passover I walk past the bread aisle in the supermarket, I rarely think about how Moses and the Israelites escaped from bondage and how, as a Jew, it is important for me to connect with my people and our God and avoid all leavened food because my people didn’t have the luxury of time and thus couldn’t let their bread rise. In reality, when I bypass bread, I only think, “I can’t have that.” My long-term goal may be to be a faithful and observant member of the Jewish community who is respectful of God (again, I’m dubious), but my immediate goal — my most accessible thoughts while walking through Wegmans — is that I told myself I wouldn’t eat bread for eight days.
Not surprisingly, psychologists have done extensive research on behavioral control and how we pursue our goals. Regardless of whether or not abstinence from something we like and are used to having (e.g. Passover or Lent) is a long-term ambition (i.e. moral penitence), or a short-term, tangible plan, exerting mental and behavioral control has been shown to lead to what psychologists call “ego-depletion.” According to many, willpower, or our ability to control our own actions, is a resource that can be (and is) easily exhausted. Inhibiting behavior, like choosing not to eat chocolate while observing lent, requires energy and this “ego” resource that is limited.
If conscious self-control is exhausting, it would seem beneficial for us to avoid thinking about bread and how we have to avoid it, right? I don’t even eat all that much bread to begin with but every year, during these eight days, I think about bread in every form imaginable. My friend who had avoided late-night eating for forty nights started to literally fantasize about Bear Samplers and CTP toward the end of Lent. Why? Psychologists have an answer for this as well. We have two cognitive processes involved in successful mental control: the intentional and the ironic. When given enough time and mental capacity, the intentional operating process fills the mind with preferred thoughts, allowing my friend to bypass Nasty’s and put herself to sleep without eating a bit of fried food. However, if put under stress or pressure (or maybe, say, alcohol?) the intentional operating process falls apart and the ironic monitoring process brings the opposite thoughts — the unhelpful, bread-laden thoughts — into awareness. As we get more and more depleted after exerting more control, we are more likely to fall prey to ironic processing and thus, think more about that which we wish not to.
In that way, the more I resist chametz, and with each day my friend chooses not to smoke a cigarette, we think more about that which we are missing. That, in turn, makes me more aware of not only bready products, but also, of the fact that it is Passover and that, indeed, thousands of years ago, my ancestors escaped — with the help of God — from persecution. So, perhaps, even a tangible “I can’t eat bread because I told myself I wouldn’t,” thanks to our minds’ funny ways of working, reminds me of my connection to my religion and to some kind of a higher power. Or, alternatively, it might also just remind me of the importance of sliced bread: No cooking time necessary.
Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at email@example.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.