Sometimes, when we rush about, trying to get everything done, and not taking the time to do it right, we get ourselves into trouble. Here’s what I mean:
One day, a man left the snowy streets of Chicago to go on vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and was planning on meeting him in Fort Lauderdale the next day. When he got to his hotel, he decided to send her a quick e-mail from the computer in the lobby to confirm everything. But he had forgotten his appointment book, with her email address inside, up in his room, and he didn’t want to take the time go all the way upstairs to get it. But he knew her address from memory— or so he thought. Unfortunately, however, he missed one letter and his note was directed instead to an elderly minister’s wife, whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the monitor, let out a piercing scream, and fell to the floor in a dead faint. When they heard the commotion, her family rushed into the room and read this note on the screen:
"Dearest Wife, Just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Your Loving Husband.” Then he added: “P.S. Sure is hot down here."
Sometimes, it’s important to take just a little more time, and do it right.
Sometimes, if we take just a little more time, it can pay us really big benefits. And save us some real headaches.
In 1982, an American physician named Larry Dossey coined the phrase “time sickness”, which he defined as the obsessive belief that “time is getting away from us, there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.”
Can there be any doubt that there is an epidemic of “time sickness” in our society?
Between 1973 and the year 2000, the average American worker added 199 hours per year to his or her work schedule. In fact, an average American now works more hours per week than peasants did in the Middle Ages.
In 2002, Americans gave back to their employers 175 million days of paid vacation which they had earned, but had been unable to take.
The average American gets about two hours less sleep per night than he or she did a century ago. (Maybe three hours less last night because we turned our clocks ahead!)
Time sickness can, all too often, manifest itself as physical sickness. Chronic fatigue, stress, overwork—all, obviously, manifest themselves in a whole array of physical illnesses.
But they cost us dearly in other ways, as well. Rushing through life too quickly; packing too much in; not taking enough time for rest, relaxation, rejuvenation does violence to our spirits; it wounds us in ever deeper ways than physical. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote:
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is… overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of this innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects… is to succumb to violence… [This] frenzy… destroys our own inner capacity for peace because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes [our] work fruitful.”
Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it:
“If we are too busy, if we are carried away every day by our projects, our uncertainty, our craving, how can we have the time to stop and look deeply into the situation—our own situation, the situation of our beloved ones, the situation of our family and our community… our nation, and of other nations?”
It is as though we have sucked into the vortex of the storm, and just can’t break out. We live our lives like the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which the harried Calvin mutters out loud: “I know God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I am so far behind, I’ll never die!”
But that’s now how it works, is it? None of us has an unlimited supply of time. We don’t necessarily get enough time to finish everything before we go. To the contrary, even if we live to be a hundred, the years seem so often to fly by. Where do they go? So often, we see the richest experiences of our lives only through the rear-view mirror. Once they’re gone, you’ll never get them back. Oh, we can have memories and reminiscences and pictures on Photobucket and Snapfish; those are all precious, and to be savored. (I love looking at old pictures.) But it’s not the same as being there, is it? Not the same as living through the experience.
And if we rush our way through everything—rush through our work; rush through our shopping; rush through our meals; rush through the time we spend with our children; even rush through our vacations—then we might fall into bed exhausted, but will we even remember what we’ve done that day (let alone find meaning or purpose in it)? Probably not.
“Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?” Henry David Thoreau wrote over a hundred and fifty years ago. “We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.”
Going through life on auto-pilot is depressing and debilitating, no doubt about it. Going through life with the cruise control set at 80 or higher—no matter what the road, no matter what the terrain, no matter what curves await us, no matter what we’re supposed to be doing and paying attention to—isn’t just depressing; it’s dangerous. It’s physically dangerous (I wonder how many avoidable accidents happen because people are distracted or stressed out or fatigued? A lot, I bet.) Think of the emotional toll it takes, too.
In so many aspects of life, unless we do something with love, we don’t really experience it. It’s when we love something—when we connect with it on a deeper level; when we have passion for it-- that it makes an impression on us; it sinks in; we remember it; it plants its seed of life within us.
But love takes time. “It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of an oak,” St. Exupery once said. Love takes time, and does not usually lend itself to a “hurry up—faster—faster” style of living. Seeds of real life may be planted—precious acorns in our souls; but unless we give them time and space and nourishment to grow, they will wither and die. Then we will remain “time famished”: starved for authentic human moments, for genuine and deep human contact; for life-enhancing, soul-shaking experiences; for conversation and intimacy that pierces our souls and plants new seeds and gives the flower of love what it needs to grow.
In his book on “time sickness”, Dr. Dossey says that we need to slow down and “step out of time”. He says we need to take “time exits” off the bullet train—off the super speedway—on which most of us have found ourselves.
Sometimes, if we are lucky, and if we are wise, we can schedule these “time exits” on our own: times of meditation and contemplation… a walk in the woods… a stroll in the neighborhood… times at the gym… an hour a day put aside for reading… an afternoon nap, even… Things like this that slow us down, that give our bodies time to replenish and reconnect, that ease us into the next stage of our journeys…
We need to be conscious and deliberate about taking our own “time exits”—scheduling them when we need them; when we can appreciate them; when they are most useful to us. If we don’t, our bodies might schedule them for us, and just shut down when it needs to—with illness, disease, accidents. “Illness is the Western world’s only acceptable form of meditation,” Anne Wilson Schaef once said. Our bodies need a rhythm of work and rest if they are to function effectively.
Sometimes, we need to take “time exits” and hop off the bullet train. Other times, we need to take matters into our own hands, and rebel. We have to become counter-cultural. As one writer has put it, “We can tell each other to turn off the auto-pilot and cancel the cruise control! We can help each other to slow down, to pay attention, and to be intentional” about how we spend our time.
We can model that kind of behavior for one another—and, most importantly perhaps, for our children. Imagine how far this world of ours has fallen, when families sitting down to eat dinner together has become a radical, counter-cultural act of rebellion! Maybe I exaggerate—but just a tiny, tiny bit.
But changing the way we live our lives means… changing the way we live our lives. That means paying attention to what we’re doing. It means being attentive to what’s happening around us (and inside of us). It means sitting still sometimes, and being quiet, and not doing anything, and just waiting for the still, small voice of God to speak to us.
Sometimes that takes a certain amount of time. But sometimes not. As my colleague Diane Teichert has written:
“We can pay attention. We can use our senses to notice more around and within us. We can cultivate a graceful, grateful, attentive approach to daily life that gives it more meaning. It takes no extra time to walk from the door to the car, bus, or train while actually noticing what the air feels like, whether there is a pleasant fragrance or bad odor to it, and what the sounds and sights are around us. But paying attention gets us out of our heads and into our bodies and through them into the world.”
Sometimes, we need to slow down what we’re doing in order to know what we’re really doing. Slow down in all of our busy-ness in order to discern the meaning and the purpose of the lives we lead.
“You don’t choose a life, you live one,” a son tells his father in the recent film, The Way. “You don’t choose a life, you live one.” We are called to really live our lives.
Which is sometimes exciting, but seldom easy.
Sometimes rewarding, but often demanding.
And sometimes, keeps us very busy indeed.
So I don’t pretend that any of this is easy. I know that ministers only work one day a week [JOKE] but I know that for too many of us: “It has become too easy to fill life to the edges, to the brim, to the darkest corners of early morning and late night too, until there are no remainders. Running from one commitment to another, adding tasks between appointments, returning calls between tasks, wedging things too big into times too small, a half hour hear, ten minutes there, or a second right now… borrowing time from one need to address another.”
But life isn’t supposed to be a shell game. And I will go a step further and dare to say that it doesn’t always have to be this way, even in this modern world.
Sometimes, the best things come to us in life when we slow down.
And the even best-est things come to us when we sit still.
“Be still, and know that I am God,” the Old Testament psalmist commands.
His words echo forth through the centuries. They resound in our own time of noise and tumult and haste. They echo deep in the soul of each of us.
They remind us to stay alert—to unlock our sense, our eyes and ears—to open our hearts—to keep watch for the Spirit and the lessons we need to learn—oftentimes where we least expect to find them.
They remind us that out of the tangled threads of our lives, there can emerge a pattern which connects—a deep sense of meaning—an abiding joy.
If we slow down (or at least try)—and stand humbly before the Great Mystery, humbly before the mystery of our lives, humbly in the blessed presence of one another and those we love, then who knows what amazing surprises these lives of ours can offer?