Supposed to be working? Blog instead.

While it’s been more than two years since I left my fulltime job and entered seminary, I feel as though I haven’t learned even one thing about balancing my life.  Well, one thing, perhaps, which is that I don’t balance my life.  There is nothing like steeping oneself in a world that attempts to integrate spirituality, academics, and praxis, the personal and the community, the religious and the secular, the individual and the systemic for revealing the complexity and apparent impossibility of juggling every aspect of daily life.  No matter what, it always feels as though something must be sacrificed.  For most of us, I think the first thing to go is self-care.  We feel as though we’re pouring ourselves out, out, out, but there is no time for refilling.  Exercise?  Yeah, right.  Reading fiction?  In your dreams.  Sleep, maintaining old relationships, even prayer… all out the window, sacrificed on the altar of finishing that midterm exam, reading that final chapter, making it to that committee meeting, doing that project, checking one more thing off the ever-growing to-do list.  Now, I realize this is true for most every person, whether they exist within or without the world of the church.  But it makes me wonder.  In a culture that’s known for its “takin’ care of me” obsession, why is it that when things really get hard, the first thing we do is give up on ourselves?  It is certainly not an issue of ignorance.  In nearly every conversation I have with friends, both in school and those on “the outside,” I hear the same wistfulness.  “I wish I had more time to pray.”  “If only I could make time to go for a walk every once in a while.”  “I miss spending time with my kids.”  In the world of the church, this surprises me, considering the model we have.  Jesus made sure to spend time eating with friends, took himself off into quiet spaces to pray and be alone, away from the crowds.  Sure, he was ready and willing to do what was necessary as it came across his radar (remember his repeated conflict with the Pharisees about working on the Sabbath?), but he was intentional about why he was interrupting holy time, time in which he could regenerate and refuel and reconnect with what was important. 

I’m reading a book right now by AJ Jacobs called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. AJ, during his year of attempting to live out the Bible’s rules and regulations literally, committed himself to pray for a half-hour every day.  In conversation with  rabbi about his prayer practice, he says this:

“I love saying prayers of thanksgiving, ” I say, “because it makes me more grateful for life.  But I still have trouble with the prayers where you’re glorifying God…” 

The rabbi responds by telling him to stop looking at the Bible as self-help book.  Asking, “How can religion make me more joyous, give my life more meaning?” misses the point.  It isn’t about that, it’s about serving God.  So he tells AJ this story: Two men do their daily prayers while at work.  One spends twenty minutes in his office behind a closed door and afterwrard feels refreshed and uplifted, like he just had a therapy session.  The other is so busy, he can squeeze in only a five-minute prayer session between phone calls.  He recites his prayers superfast in a supply closet.  Who has done the better thing?  AJ quickly replied that the first man did.  The rabbi disagrees.  The second guy was doing it for God, only.  He was sacrificing his time.  There was no benefit to himself. 

I wonder if this complicates the problem of balance.  Not only are we supposed to find time to connect with whatever we understand as the Big Thing That Is Ultimately Important (I call it God, you might call it something else), but we’re to do that without thought to our own benefit.  Again, I think Jesus helps here.  Connecting to God indeed is a good thing for us.  We do, for sure, “get something” out of it.  But the things we get are secondary to the connection itself.  I would argue with that rabbi – there was indeed a benefit to the second man.  It just wasn’t his first priority to “gain” something.  Why would he continue to go back to that closet?  Going there fulfilled a need, and it seems like it was a need for connection, a desire for momentary rest, a place to be still.  It seems as though our experience, the fact that we feel so out of whack, so unbalanced is precisely because we are seeking to take care of ourselves.  We’re just going about it the wrong way.  Checking off that item on the list is not as meaningful as five, even one, minute of quiet reflection, of reconnection with what’s ultimately important.  We need to accomplish that item, certainly – I’m not arguing that we should drop every activity.  However, perhaps we would do it better, with clearer intention and more energy, more attention to its purpose and our own, if we’ve already made it a priority to be present in a larger way.  I don’t think that has to mean adding yet another item to the list, “Pray between 10:00 and 11:00;” “Reflect quietly before lunch;” “Reconnect with friends tomorrow.”  Rather, it may mean accepting the fact that balance is less about dropping or adding things to our daily lives than acknowledging the way in which we approach them.  Are we doing it for our own benefit (taking care of us) or because we recognize their importance and find ourselves drawn to them?  I think we’ll find things arise or fall away on their own if we simply choose to see our lists differently.

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