“Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ And if I am too poor, I may steal, and thus insult God’s holy name.” Proverbs 30:8-9, New Living Translation
Henry David Thoreau spent the better part of his life writing about man’s attempt to find truth and meaning through simplified living. At some point he discovered he could live within the harmony and beauty of nature, with a clear conscience and only work six weeks a year to support his lifestyle. He graduated from Harvard at age 16 and began his personal Journal, which grew to 30 volumes throughout his lifetime.
Henry found it difficult to find a teaching job that matched his style so he worked briefly in his father’s pencil factory. At age 28, Thoreau built a small house on Waldon Pond and began to devote his time to his writing. Advocating the simple life, his “Walden” journey began with: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”
This does not describe the typical journey of a Harvard graduate today. Rather, the expectation is an immediate six figure income and the lifestyle that accompanies “success.” We live in a society that embraces indulgent consumption as a visible status symbol. The fabulous house tells everyone that you have arrived, even if it takes two incomes and being trapped in an unfulfilling job to make it work. The house then sets the expectations for the country club membership, private schools for the children and attendance at the right social events. We work longer hours to pay for the new “stuff” and then have less time to enjoy it. We plead with God to bless us, but the only relief from the self-imposed pressure would be to win the lottery.
Where do we draw the line on consumption if we can “afford” the extras? Do you really need all the house you “qualify” for? Why do Christians thank God for providing when they finance a car purchase equal to an annual income? Is a vacation in the Caribbean that much more satisfying than spending a week on a needy Indian reservation? Is it truly God’s will that we buy into the bondage of debt? How can we give generously when payments are overdue?
I currently am working with a client who is a self-described “do-aholic.” While noble and even Godly in his motives, his intensity of “doing” tends to snuff out his chances for success and wholeness in areas other than career.
How easily we become identified by what we do rather than by who we are. As in any of life’s systems, there must be a balance between doing and being. Our culture embraces doing. It is a badge of honor to be “busy.” We say we are busy to one another with no small degree of pride, as if our exhaustion were a badge of honor and our ability to withstand the stress a mark of real character. The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to those around us. Thus we are unavailable to those who desperately need us, unable to enjoy a sunset, and deprived of personal balance, while becoming the model of the successful American life. Solitude, meditation time, seeking God or even thinking, are not valued in modern America. Look at the newspaper. Is anyone being honored or featured because he/she spends time alone?
Having spent some time at The Abbey of Gethsemani, this issue has a vivid focus for me. The Abbey is a Trappist monastery where the expressed goal is “being”. While there I was free from TV, radio, telephones, pagers, email, cell phones, cars, Taco Bell, Pepsi, and M&Ms. Although a voracious reader, I also did not allow myself any books, tapes, magazines, or newspapers. What a unique experience!
But as much as I believe in physical breathing, I believe even more strongly that we need both symbolic inhaling and exhaling in our lives. If I only exhale physically, I will turn blue and pass out. If I am busy “doing,” I will likely become exhausted and burn out. But I fear that if I inhale only (“being”) I will leave a void or vacuum around me. Rather than passing blessings and goodness on to others, I may appear to be self-absorbed and insensitive. We must embrace that sacred balance of rest and performance.
If I retreat and “do” nothing I will miss my opportunity to fill my place and make a difference in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your greatest talents and the world’s greatest needs cross, there lies your vocation.” If I back away from the world’s needs I will miss my vocation, my calling, and my purpose.
We are told the difference between insanity and genius is success. In many things, there is a fine line between the desirable and the undesirable. In this example, I suspect that the line between seeking God and dropping out is frequently indistinguishable. My room at The Abbey was adequate but sparse, having a desk, a chair, a lamp and a cot. I happen to enjoy solitude and have never been a great socializer. The dropped eyes and absence of the passing “Hi, how are you?” and the continued unconnectedness, however, soon had even me longing for a little more interaction (talking is forbidden). How can having access to God’s resources be displayed or utilized except through meaningful contact with the world and other people? How frustrating it would be to have a Ferrari in your garage but not have a key to the garage door. And doesn’t even the Bible teach us that a light put under a bushel basket cannot give light and is therefore useless? (Matt. 5:14) While there was a hypnotic reverence in the seven times daily choral chants, I began to feel I was trapped in a repeating Groundhog Day. I found myself sleeping more, simply in an attempt to make the hours pass more quickly.
If you are working 70 hours a week, you are probably trying to “do” too much. Give yourself a break to “be”. After all, what we are becoming is always more important than what we are getting. Spend time with your children, take a leisurely bath, light candles for the family dinner, hike through the park or visit a monastery. In the design of a week, God gave us the Sabbath. This is part of the natural plan for rest, relaxation and meditation. Don’t allow that sacred day to be filled with more work and frantic rushing to yet another committee meeting. And certainly, don’t let it be just another workday. With modern technology in a global economy, we are seeing a diminishing of the normal workweek. Frequently, even Christians are available 24/7 for their work. Many of us, in our mistaken attempt to be “successful,” feel guilty when we take time to rest. It is in the quiet that we find creativity, hear God’s still voice and find true wisdom. Because we do not rest, we lose our way. But yes, if we only rest, we will also lose our way.
Did I find God in the solitude of The Abbey grounds? Absolutely! While the logistics seemed strained initially, they became more comfortable quickly. The first 24 hours seemed like an eternity; however, by the third day I had become fairly proficient at “doing” nothing. While having all the chairs face one way in the dining room seemed a little strange, I soon found it a welcome relief to not have to create an artificial conversation. Did I connect with God in this setting? Yes! In the solitude my life goals became clearer. My goals for the next year took shape and generated a new excitement. Several articles and another book title formed in my mind.
But I also meet God in the synergistic connection I feel in a meeting of the eyes across a crowded room with my wife of 36 years, and in the miracle and wonder of experiencing the world with my children and grandchildren. I feel God’s presence and affirmation through meaningful work, in seeing the seeds of hope and encouragement take root in my clients. And I meet God on the deck of our own living retreat here in Tennessee, where we already spend four days each week thinking, writing, planning and playing.
Similar to Aristotle’s wisdom about vocation, Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I pray that you and I will be able to identify both our gladness and the world’s great hunger. There is a welcome respite in having no responsibilities, no schedule and having no one know your name. But let’s not lose the impact and connection. Let’s live like our eternity has already begun. If we are now becoming what we will be for all eternity, begin now to enjoy the incredible sense of peace that comes from meaningful work and restorative rest.
Perhaps we, like Thoreau, could take time to savor the beauty of nature around us and to smell the fresh roses of everyday life. “Simplify, simplify.” “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both. James Michener