Fasting: Root Beer and Potato Chips

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Beyoncé did it. So have many of the stars in the neon firmament of Hollywood over the past few years. In fact, it’s become quite the rage. Christ did it for forty days in the desert and we do it every Lent.

Fasting: it’s the talk of the town, the cat’s meow, the cause célѐbre among the nouveau riche, the royal aristocracy, old Main Line money types, and peasants like you and me.

“No pain, no gain,” right? Why it’s as American as apple pie and Chevrolet. As common as endorphins released by the pituitary gland from the base of your brain that, combined with dopamine and serotonin, after a good workout, make for that special chemical cocktail that you can pour into a Margarita glass rimmed with kosher salt and deliciously sip from a straw after pushing away the little, pink umbrella that always gets in the way.

“No pain, no gain.” We all know where that phrase originated. It was from the Jane Fonda videos back in the eighties. She was the queen of aerobic exercise, the guru of gyration, the femme fatale of fitness, the lioness in leotards. You had to “feel the burn” to experience the joy of physical Nirvana.

But it begs the question: gain what? Does this commonly used phrase concern body weight and physique, or the size of your purse, or some sort of spiritual exercise? Well, actually, it could be any one of these things exclusively or all of the above. It could also mean something like delayed gratification. But let’s take this one step at a time.

Jane didn’t coin the phrase “no pain, no gain,” or derivations thereof, they go way back. Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle, in what’s called his “Nicomachean Ethics,” speak to pain and gain, at least in the sense that it could lead to virtue. So did St. Paul: “…affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope…” (Romans 5: 3-4).

The English lyric poet and cleric, Robert Herrick, in Hesperides (1650 Edition), composed a little two-line ditty that goes like this:

If little our labour, little our pains;

man’s fate is according to his pains.

And, our own Ben Franklin, not missing a beat to steal a good line, said in his “ramblings,” in The Way to Wealth (1758):

‘Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains…’

Okay, so that’s the history (and, yes, I researched it myself because I don’t always trust Wikipedia, although I’m grateful for their assistance).

Every Lenten season, Catholics are asked (not demanded, mind you, God forbid) to fast from food or drink, or give something else up, and/or give their time, their money, their prayers, to reconcile themselves with each other and, most importantly, to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance for their sins.

But the heartthrobs and icons of this world don’t fast to atone for their sins or to make the world a better place. They do it to look better. And there’s nothing wrong with that of course. It’s their business to be beautiful. That’s how they make their living. So, Beyoncé goes on a 10-day “MasterFast” of Cayenne pepper, maple syrup and lemonade aid, and drops 20 pounds.

Other fasts that hit the top of the charts last year were the 3-day Fruit Flush Diet, the apple juice and ginger flush, the liver cleanse, the colon cleanse, the ever popular green smoothie diet, and, for the past few years, the 5:2 Diet (five days off, two days on, fasting at or below 600 calories per day). My personal favorite is the “40-Day Soul Fast,” because it fits perfectly within the timeframe of the Lenten season and wouldn’t we all like to shed an inch or two off of our love handles at the same time.

Unlike Catholic fasting during Lent, the fad diets have warning flags flying all over them. WebMd.com says don’t do it. The Mayo Clinic website says “maybe,” at least for issues dealing with heart health.

Yet, healthy.net says such natural healing objectives enhance “homeostasis” (I don’t quite follow but it sounds like a yes). The Chicago Tribune reports “fasting is a message to your body that you’re embarking on a new beginning, flushing out the old and bringing in the new.” Wow, that is, well, prolific. Better than a coffee enema before breakfast.

 Dad’s Lenten Sacrifice

My dad gave up drinking beer every lent. Please understand, this was no small thing. And it truly was a fine example for us kids. On those nights when dad wasn’t working both jobs (he had to support ten children, so dad worked days and nights – to this day I really don’t know how anyone could do this) and when he had the weekends off, he would take over the kitchen table. This was, in our little Levittown, Jubilee home, his domain.

Dad didn’t watch much television, except when a ball game was on (even then, I think he preferred listening over the radio like he did as a kid before WWII). But he did enjoy tuning in to William F. Buckley or David Susskind on the public station (channel 12, for those of you from the Philly area) so he could gauge both sides of an argument. And this was how I acquired my political sense – the ability to listen, to process information knowing no one singular side had the ultimate claim on right or wrong. Virtue, as the Greeks would agree, is a process. Since we had fewer TV stations than you can count on your toes, including UHF, dad held court at the kitchen table reading his newspapers and Catholic magazines and periodicals, smoking an Admiral cigar, cranking up the volume on a one-speaker AM radio. This was his kingdom. The ladder-backed seat was his throne, the kitchen his castle.

And Lent was a challenge. Normally, he would have a case of cheap classic brew stashed in the front of the garage. Twenty-four brown glass bottles secured in a returnable case like Reading or Iron City or Stegmaier Porter (which he always instructed me to down a couple before I went to bed along with a peanut butter sandwich because I was as “thin as a rail” and needed to “put some fat on those bones”).  But, sure enough, for my father, every Lent the porter was replaced by a gallon of “Dad’s” root beer and a bag of Herr’s potato chips. It wasn’t easy. He did it anyway.

I guess dad was way ahead of the curve of corporate mottos like Nike’s “Just Do It.”  His pains led to gains not just to polish up his own soul, but to set a base line for his children and grand-children, and all who visited our humble home and shared our simple table. And like the instructions hidden on the back of the label, dad never, ever – not even once – mentioned he was engaged in self-sacrifice.

I am quite certain that, unlike Beyoncé, dad never even thought that his Lenten sacrifice would help him better his hip-to-waist ratio. He simply gave something up because it was the right thing to do. Besides, a gallon of “Dad’s” root beer and a bag of Herr’s before bedtime would have negated any physical benefits.

You see, it’s all about self-governance. The challenge, as it is with every true Lenten sacrifice, is to rise above yourself, give back something for the blessings you’ve received. “Offer it up,” as dad used to say, and “finish strong” because life is, without question, a race – against time, against powers and principalities, against our fallen nature.

It’s a cleansing, to be sure. But, not one just to flush our bodies and detox ourselves from poisons taken in from our unrestrained diets or from the very air we breathe.

But to realize in ourselves that we have the power, as creatures created with and freely given free will, to change the world with our little Lenten offering.

Dad would agree. Without pain there is no gain – in our bodies, in our hearts, or in our souls.

Beyoncé would attribute her suffering, slurping lemonade-maple syrup-cayenne pepper concoctions for the sake of a gorgeous figure. Dad would gut it up for forty days downing root beer and potato chips. The results weren’t the same. She walked away with an hour-glass figure. Dad earned an eternity through simple sacrifice.

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