• Kayte Thomas

Ash Wednesday reflections

In social work, we’re often taught not to talk about religion with clients. Just like politics, we’re taught that if we keep our preferences out of discussions and we don’t really ask about theirs, everything will be more or less fine. Which is, of course, ridiculous. These are crucial aspects of the human experience which affect virtually all aspects of life, so it’s critically important to talk about people’s worldviews! What we now know from more recent research is that the majority of people want to talk about issues such as their faith and spirituality…but they wait for the social worker to bring up the discussion. See the problem when many social workers are told not to bring this up?

So today, this social worker is going to talk about faith. And since today is Ash Wednesday, it seems like a good time to talk about the beauty which can be found within Lenten practices. If you need to know a little more about Lent, see here.

Recently, I’ve seen people talk about how the focus on “sin” during Lent is really problematic for them, or feels challenging to explain to their children. This is indeed one interpretation of Lenten practices but…I don’t think it’s the most accurate. Of course I’m not a theologian, I just see the opportunity to open up discussion about the value of this particular faith perspective, so take my thoughts on the issue as you will. But to me, I find this time period to be one of the most profoundly beautiful and impactful throughout the year. And full disclosure – I’m Catholic, so I’ve had many experiences with this practice. Here's a few of my thoughts...

Today marks the start of Lent this year, and on Ash Wednesday we’re reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return”. In non-COVID times, we walk around with ashes on our foreheads that everyone who is unaware of the meaning tries to rub off thinking it’s dirt. It’s extra funny living in the South, where fewer people practice Lent, because Southern etiquette leaves people caught between concern about being rude and a desire to look proper, so they sort of stand there for a while with a distinct look of panicked indecision while they decide if they should stay quiet but polite or try to fix the mess. It amuses me to no end every year. This year is different though, there’s no touching of foreheads with the risk of virus transmission. Instead, ashes were sprinkled on the tops of our heads, which has roots in very early Christian practices and was used this year for obvious safety precautions.

Anyway, this ash is hugely symbolic, as are those words about being dust. This is a time to be reminded of our mortality, and in doing so also our humanity. It’s time to pause and think about what we will do between the time we were created from dust, and the time when we will return to being dust – basically, our lives. What is it that we want to do with this timeframe? How will we ensure that this brief and temporary experience will be meaningful? What does it mean to come from and return to dust? Some of this speaks to impermanence, and the need for a lack of attachment to a variety of things – material goods, wealth, recognition, etc. – and some of it speaks to the importance of ensuring that what we do with our lives has value at the same time. It’s a reminder to view life as precious, and that because it is temporary we should truly reflect upon what it is we want to do with the time that we are here. And in doing so, we’re encouraged to self-assess and determine ways that our thoughts and actions are either aligned or not aligned with the understanding of how we are to spend our time of Earth.

For the next forty days, the observant will focus on either decreasing unhelpful/unhealthy behaviours or increasing helpful/healthy behaviours. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both. We also spend more time in prayer and intentional fasting, both of which are intended to increase clarity, connection to the divine, connection to others, and gratitude for what we have in life. When we fast, we’re reminded not only that we don’t need to consume (physically and metaphorically) as much as we may tend to in order to survive, but also that there are those who have less than we do regularly, and so we can readily give more to others and ensure that there is enough for everyone. There is also the focus on self-reflection to determine ways in which we can do better for ourselves and for others. It truly is a practice intended to improve how life is lived, and when this is undertaken year after year, there can certainly be profound changes in an individual – and the larger community overall.

So why does this matter for social work, or for people who don’t partake in Lenten practices? Well, a lot of this actually aligns with the work completed in therapeutic processes. Take Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), for example. With CBT, we’re taught to have a deeper understanding of the ways in which our thoughts may be inaccurate or unhelpful, how this affects our emotions, and then in turn ways that our actions are affected as a result. And we’re encouraged to think about the goals we would like for ourselves, and if we’re on a path aligned with that. From there, we learn how to enact change within ourselves to create better outcomes. The focus is on self-reflection and growth, just as Lenten practices are. It is a beautiful and empowering practice which, just like Lent, should not contain aspects of shame in the process.

Beyond that though, there is a reminder to pay attention to the goodness which may arise from the difficult times. The dark times. The slower times. The times when there is less than usual. This too has connection to social work and mental health practices, because we know that intentionally slowing down has healing properties. It resets the nervous system, heals trauma, and brings clarity when everything feels confusing. Often, after these brief and intentional pauses, we emerge with a renewed sense of purpose or direction. (Of note: this refers to intentional and controlled processes undertaken by the individual, not imposed on them by others. Just for clarity!)

So here are the questions I leave you with today, regardless of your faith or worldview. Spend some time in quiet reflection and listen to the innate wisdom within yourself. What is it telling you? Are things in alignment in your life? You will recognize when it is, because you will feel calm and fulfilled without a pull towards drastic change. If something is out of alignment, what is it – and what do you need to do (or not do) to be more in tune with your genuine self? Do a self-assessment and ask yourself if the actions you partake in regularly are helpful or harmful to your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. Have you picked up any detrimental habits during the pandemic? If so, there’s a good chance that those are an attempt to mask an unmet need or lack of connection. What would need to improve in order to ensure more healthy behaviours? Finally, ask yourself what it is you’re doing to improve the lives of others as well, because we cannot be truly fulfilled while others are struggling and – as we’re reminded during Lent – we can all take a little less and give a little more in order to ensure that everyone is cared for.

Set aside regular time for introspection, and the results might just surprise you. There is so much value in taking the time to slow down, reassess, and realign. I truly believe that we are all meant to live in ways that honour connection while simultaneously ensuring that our unique gifts and talents are used within the world, and these practices can help us to stay on the best paths for ourselves (and others). We are not meant to have unlived, unfulfilling lives but rather lives filled to the brim with purpose and meaning. How is it that you're living today? I would love to hear about any insights you've arrived at after thinking through this as well!

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