Ash Wednesday: Observing Lent from a Secular Perspective

Feb 10, 2016 | Social Media

Why Observe Lent at All?

I’m neither atheist nor religious. Growing up Protestant, I never really “gave up” anything for Lent – maybe chocolate or candy for the first three days of Lent, but not with any mindful, spiritual intent. During a year at Catholic school, I “gave up” meat on Fridays, opting instead to buy the Kraft American Slices cheese-and-Wonder Bread sandwiches for which money was then donated to charity. I didn’t have to, of course, but it would only have made me feel more “other” than I already did at the mandatory Wednesday mass, where we non-Catholics had to hang back, unworthy to join in communion. The church I grew up in, the UCC, invites everyone to join in, provided they have an understanding of the symbolism and significance.

It’s the thing, you know, to “give up” something for Lent. Doesn’t matter what your faith is – “What are you giving up for Lent?” is a question with about as much religious significance attached as “What’s Santa bringing you for Christmas?” or “How much money did the Tooth Fairy leave under your pillow for those two front teeth?” It’s just a thing, with guilty pleasures like chocolate or sugar or bitching about the Kardashians topping the list. But Lent is also an opportunity for spiritual reflection and for breaking bad habits and making better ones. That’s how I intend to approach it, this year.

Why Facebook?

While some hard-core Lent fanatics are giving up Social Media (#5), I’m just giving up Facebook (#22) in order to reflect on the struggle we all face between “utility and convenience,” as Jack Yan put it; entertainment and instant gratification; and our own core values, like integrity and kindness.

I don’t believe that social media isolates us. It doesn’t isolate us any more than sticking our nose in a good book at the dinner table does – which is to say that it allows us to isolate ourselves just a much or as little as we choose to. I have family and real friends there who mean the world to me, and it is our primary way of keeping in touch, day to day, as we are separated by great distances. I tend to ignore the “news feed” on Facebook, which doubtless leaves some of them feeling neglected. I focus, instead, on the conversations that happen on my own “wall” and respond to the notifications I see. That cuts down on much of what raises people’s blood pressure when it comes to social media, and leaves me with a mostly happy user experience. It’s the social media equivalent of going through life with blinders on. I run a well moderated wall, and my goal has always been for it to be a place for lively conversation, intelligent debate, and civility for all.

I don’t believe that the “anonymity” of social media makes monsters and psychopaths of us. It may facilitate monsters and psychopaths finding each other, and it may serve to validate, in their minds, their psychotic tendencies, but it doesn’t turn decent human beings into horrible ones. The horrible ones, I’m sorry to say, have always been horrible – maybe they were better at hiding it when they couldn’t hide their faces behind a screen, or maybe we just didn’t notice it. But they’ve always been rotten at the core.

One thing has become crystal clear over the past eight years or so: Facebook is hard to quit, even as many of us bemoan the meanness and rampant, willful ignorance that abounds and spreads like Ebola – and the fact that it makes us hate our fellow man more and more. As Anne Frank wrote: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.” Most people focus on the bit about us being “really good at heart.” I am not unshakeably sure of that, but I do know that “I can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death.”

I need a break.

But That’s Nothing New – Why Now?

I kind of wish I hadn’t rediscovered Tagboard.

In preparing to give a presentation on social media for writers, in May, I started looking at how the hashtags we use might look in the aggregate – not to our own relatively small group of followers who know us fairly well, but to someone actively using hashtags to search for items of interest. Sign up on Tagboard, go to your dashboard there, and search for something like, oh, fiction. Or children.

I don’t know what the porn spammers think they’ll accomplish using some of the tags they use, other than to have irate parents hit that Report button over and over and over again because they were looking for activities or crafts to do with their kids, or books their kids might like – though it’s admittedly a little like playing Whack-a-Mole. To be clear, I’m no prude; it isn’t a little porn between consenting adults that had me rethinking my entire relationship to social media. I’ve been using “social media” since CompuServe created its “CB Simulator” – nothing much shocks or surprises me. I’m quite familiar with Rule 34 and I’m not humor impaired. But children and porn don’t belong on the same planet, let alone the same site. I havAnd it would be irresponsible to suggest that an author use hashtags like fiction or children when those lead down a rabbit hole to a cesspool.

One of the cruder results I found – the only one, I should say, that involved children at all – was an illustration, not a photo of people, posted on a public Facebook page with the hashtag children. It was a detailed, sexually explicit drawing involving an adult woman and two children. I reported it. Numerous Facebook friends also reported it. We all got the following reply:


Fine. Their site, their rules, right? So what’s the problem?

For one, the illustration is probably in violation of federal law, according to 18 USC Chapter 71, Sec. 1466A – Obscene Visual Representations of the Sexual Abuse of Children. It may well be in violation of international laws (it appeared to be run by someone in India and was linked to a website that contains what appear to be (much tamer) images of celebrity women.

For another, it was clearly in violation of Facebook’s own “Community Standards,” which state:


Notice that this prohibits “explicit images of sexual intercourse” and specifically includes digital content that portrays restricted forms of nudity and sexual activity.  The reported illustration met those criteria.

Facebook responded to me on Twitter. And they had a whole day to think about it. In the end, the creators of the page took it down – perhaps once they realized Facebook was reviewing their content (they did remove some hardcore pornographic photos, but consistently refused to remove the most disturbing image – the one that involved children). I finally received a tepid, “We went to review this, but the page appears to have been removed before we had a chance” message. Except that they’d been reviewing individual images there for hours, so that response was nonsense.

Icing on the cake, of course, was their support of Ted Nugent’s hate-spewing, anti-Semitic rants:

Add all that onto the growing unease I’ve felt over incidents like these:

…and suddenly it’s really hard to justify turning a blind eye.

It’s not that I’m shocked or surprised there are horrible people in the world, or even that Facebook is ill-equipped or staffed to handle moderating their massive user base. Being a forum moderator is a huge and largely thankless job, and there are more pressing issues than the ones I’ve mentioned here. But the process – from reporting to review to appeal – needs an overhaul.

I thought I’d miss it. I’ve been there nearly 10 years (seems longer – that alone should tell you something), and it’s a daily habit. I have friends there that I miss already. But do I really miss Facebook? No. Not yet.

Call it my own “mood manipulation experiment” – one I’m running on me, with full knowledge and consent. I feel better, already.


UPDATE: Apparently, I have to give these up, as well: And just when I was giving Instagram kudos for being responsive when it came to removing inappropriate content! I’d forgotten they’re all part of the same dysfunctional famly. Oh well. There’s still Pinterest and Twitter. Right?


UPDATE II: So, Facebook’s really proud of their proactive methods of screening for and preventing child pornography: But the comments on their post tell a different story (consistent with my experience described above).

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Mitch Mitchell

    Wait; I just find out you’re on Instagram and now you’re not? What the hey? Did you leave voluntarily or did they remove you?

    Of course you have to do what you have to do, so I assume this affected your two business (aka fan) pages as well? I can’t imagine you starting those back up, if you come back.

    Although I won’t be taking this kind of stand on Facebook since I block tons of stuff, many years ago I took a stand against Klout for a different reason. I didn’t like the way they said that you only gained points if you interacted with people with higher scores than you instead of “people below you”. Frankly, I found that insulting and, since I didn’t play that game in high school, I certainly wasn’t playing it as an adult either. Same goes for Kred; I’m considering them pretty much the same thing.

    Well, if you do come back I’m sure I’ll know about it… somehow… lol

    • HollyJahangiri

      I’m still there. Unless they removed me. But it’s owned by Facebook – so, maybe I need to not be there till the end of Lent.

      The pages are still there, but I won’t be updating them until I come back.

      I just ignored that nonsense on Klout. Met some interesting folks with shared interests, got some cool perks (well, they used to do stuff like that – haven’t seen any in a while), and overall, just enjoyed what was enjoyable about it. Kred? Isn’t that just a rebranding of EAv? Whatever. I set up a page, and now can’t get into it to edit or delete the darned thing. NOT user friendly AT ALL.

      I may be back, but I’ve enjoyed my first Facebook free day. Got more done.

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    For so many things, it’s how you use them. Like automobiles. They can and have been used to carelessly or deliberately mow down people.

    FB is the only way I get out of the house. It has family, close friends, and my online support group. I have Adblocker on – I’m sure they hate me. And I never click of stuff or look for hashtags (though I probably spend too much time there when I’m too tired to make the decision to go to bed (a perennial problem)).

    For Lent, giving up something is a way to make the concept of doing and thinking about more important things a little more visible to children. The idea is not to give up candy, thought there’s nothing wrong with a little self-discipline; the idea is to put the money you would normally spend on a luxury in a container which will be used to buy necessities for, say, mission children.

    The ideas get perverted. Children don’t listen particularly well. And adults often forget to update their faith to the grownup version.

    I’m not sure what I’m doing for Lent. I know a couple of things which would be good for me spiritually – but they are minor. Praying more is a good one – the world could use it. I’m not capable of DOING anything – that doesn’t leave the house much bit again – but, just like elderly nuns in a nursing home given their last earthly assignment, ‘pray for the community’ seems a good thing.

    Secular is all fine – better than nothing. The world is secular in many places and in many ways – those magnificent cathedrals in Paris, built during the Middle Ages, have tiny congregations. It breaks my heart to know that. And to know that the terrorists could have targeted one, and THEN someone might have cared.

    Anyway, enough about my Lent. Hope yours does something for you. I already started badly – my brain forgot today is Ash Wednesday.

    I’m a work in progress.

    • HollyJahangiri

      I just felt like I was supporting/condoning something that I don’t, by staying. Mitch gives me basically the same argument you do – just block all the ugliness. That worked for me, for a while. I don’t know. I’ve got 40 days to think about it and wrestle with my conscience. That’s what temptation and resistance are all about, yes?

      Note that I never said I was atheist. I just don’t have a faith tradition that demands observance of Lent, and I’m not terribly “religious.” That doesn’t mean I’m not spiritual. Those great cathedrals of Europe, empty or filled wall to wall, are one of the places where I can feel closest to the divine, awed by the knowledge that we humans were able to accomplish so much, motivated by the drive to honor our creator or the glory of creation or just to give thanks for being. We have accomplished the amazing – including setting foot on the moon and photographing the stars. We could be and do so much. This week on Facebook, with that understanding, was just too disappointing.

      I’m going to replace that time with writing, reading, and taking better care of my health. It won’t be a loss at all, really.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Sounds like an eminently sensible thing to do.

        I should, probably, too – but I’m a little to isolated, and hanging around online makes me feel a bit less so.

        I block the internet with Freedom for up to five hours a day (during which I can take two naps) just so my tendency to get sidetracked is a little harder to indulge.

        Today was my first good day in three weeks – I’ve almost gotten the Book 2 plot revision to the starting line.

        Nice chatting with you.


        • HollyJahangiri

          I’m so impressed with your systems and your discipline, Alicia! I work outside the home and have my husband and son right here at home with me, so there’s no isolation at all. I do have that tendency to get too tired to make the decision to sleep – boy, you put that so well! And sidetracked? Oh, yeah… all the time. So kudos on your progress with Book 2!

    • HollyJahangiri

      Don’t TELL everyone, but the truth is, I don’t actually proofread, edit, or judge spelling on comments. 🙂

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        I hold myself to a higher standard – I don’t dare let up control. One of these days the brain is just going to say Nope! when I tell it that it’s time to function for the day.

        I’m hoping that writing, and the complex system of software that I use all the time, will keep my brain actively engaged and making new connections. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know too many people who haven’t made an effort in years. They scare me.

        My Dad died a couple of years ago, at 91. He was using a Kindle (letters BIG because of eye problems) and learning email to send invoices for his company. If he’d had a decent computer instead of a hand-me-down we might have made some progress. I took him a Window 7 for Dummies – and it tickled him pink.

        My sisters are lovely people, and they did all the taking care of our parents (I live in the States), but no one ever had extra time, with all the other stuff that needed doing, to sit with him on the computer long enough.

        HE tried; he could do quite a bit on his own. My husband and I are the scientist/computer geeks in the family, and we only saw him every year and a half or so – largely because I don’t travel well. You have to sit next to someone regularly for them to learn.

  3. robin khokhar

    Hi Holly,

    It’s a little different word “Lent”. This is the first time I have heard. Here in India, we use the word “Fasting”. Mostly this Ash ritual is done here by catholic only, I think so.
    However, I enjoyed reading the article. learned some new and different things.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • HollyJahangiri

      Robin, yes – it’s the same here, and one “fasts within Lent” (Lent is the 40 day period that is reflective of Jesus’s 40 days in the wilderness). Here are some good articles on the subject – and while it is mostly observed by Christians, primarily by Catholics, you don’t have to be either, really, to observe the spirit of it. (I am not Catholic, but I very much like and respect Pope Francis, and think he’s doing a good job of conveying the POINT of Lent, here, and I would urge everyone to read it. It’s easier to give up meat on fast days than to do what he asks; it’s also much less important to give up meat, I think.)

      In terms of Lent as a season, it’s not so different from the Zoroastrian Sadeh. See (particularly of interest, maybe, to those who’ve never heard of Sadeh or Norooz)

      As I said, I’m not terribly religious. BUT – when religion serves to inspire us to be better, to do better, to think kinder thoughts and act with more compassion towards each other, I’m all for it. When it divides us and makes enemies of us, it has no place at all for me.

  4. robin khokhar

    First of thanks for the links.
    You said that it is easier to give up meat in the fasting day, you mean to say that giving up your favorite food.
    even though when i was a kid use to give up for all my favorite food during the Lent.

    • HollyJahangiri

      No – I meant easier to give up meat than to give up our “indifference to others,” as Pope Francis put it. Read the article; it will make more sense, then. I was referring to that.

      I think that giving up our indifference to others is both harder and more important than giving up meat or chocolate or whatever else we “give up” for Lent. I like to think of my decision to abstain from Facebook – for the reasons I described – as not being indifferent to others. It’s not an easy ethical question, but the important ones rarely are.

  5. Marian Allen

    I wouldn’t miss FB, either, and I’d get a lot more done but, as you say, I have friends there, new and old, I only found because of FB. So I’m still there, for the nonce.

    • HollyJahangiri

      Exactly. I’m not gone for good (at least, I don’t think that I am!) but I said, “If you persist in saying this doesn’t violate community standards, I will leave,” and I don’t make idle threats.

      I do wonder, come March 24, how many people will say, “What, you left? I didn’t even notice.” (Well, okay, chances are the folks who didn’t notice won’t admit it, and the folks who did will say it just to tweak my nose – you know MY friends! LOL)

  6. Opinionated Man

    Good job reporting that photo. 🙂

    That message you get if your comment is too short is amusing! lol

    • HollyJahangiri

      Hahaha…you should try failing some of my other tests. (Comment too fast, use several URLs, put four words into your name field…)

      You should also consider getting yourself a Gravatar, OM. (Lack of one is an automatic ticket to the Moderator’s Waiting Room. You can help yourself to the cookies there, but they’re kind of stale sometimes.)

      And thank you. Unfortunately, reporting them doesn’t seem to do a lot of good, over there on Facebook. I’m really disappointed in them.

      • Opinionated Man

        I have one, but it gets moderated lol. 😉

      • HollyJahangiri

        What do you mean? Is it NSFW or something? 🙂

  7. Opinionated Man

    I am still trying to find the blatant lies… lol. 😉

    • HollyJahangiri

      Hahahah…maybe that IS the blatant lie.

      Try searching for: #storyaday

      Or: pygmies (well, that’s actually a true story – about a lie)


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