Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On quietude

From a post, On Quaker Monasticism and emergent and convergent friends ( a link to this story is on a list on the right side of this blog.) The writer is ruminating during her vacation to Mexico:

To be here in a foreign land without a sense of mission, without work to do, is dangerous idleness. In the future, I hope to be more conscientious about bringing all of my plans before God and listening very carefully before I commit, rather than assuming that I know the answer already. Just because a plan seems good and logical to me does not mean that that is how God wants to use me.

Yesterday's Jesus Creed blog, in contrast, discussed a book that argues for slowing our pace. (I would look up the reference but I've been having such trouble accessing this blog page that I'm afraid to leave it.) The slowing-down thread comes up from time to time on Jesus Creed and resonates with my own intuition/illumination that God's pace is much more deliberative and gentle than our culture's breakneck speediness. A slower life allows for the "weaker" to keep up, be cared for and thrive.

I think a tension runs in us between understanding the worth of that slower pace (most of us realize that there's some incalculable gift, for example, in being able to sit down for a made-from-scratch meal and enjoy it slowly with friends and family that isn't inherent in the much more efficient fast-food drive-through scenario) and the fear of sliding into laziness, idleness and sloth. Many of us fear squandering our time and gifts because life is finite and precious and we're told to multiply our talents.

Finding the balance is hard. The writer above hits the key note in her last sentence: that what's important is following where God leads us. Frantic busy-ness can be as futile, and hence, ultimately as damaging as sloth, if what we're doing is not what we're called to do.

I am reading Barak Obama's first book, I believe called Memories of my Father. It's a good book, well written and insightful. One part resonated with me vis-a-vis the topic of busy-ness. He writes of moving back to Hawaii from Indonesia to live with his grandparents and attend a Hawaiian prep school.

In the years since he has left them, he writes, his grandparents have in subtle ways given up on life. His grandfather (and his grandparents are probably in their early fifties) keeps up with a job selling insurance that he really doesn't like and isn't suited to and his grandmother goes to work every day at the bank, when she'd rather be a housewife, baking and volunteering at the library. His grandparents are dissatisfied, bickering. They've abandoned their dreams and accepted the status quo: a nice-enough apartment, enough money, security, predictability and safety. But the young Barak senses and is disturbed by their underlying misery. I think Thoreau would see them as living lives of quiet desperation.

The few sentences in which Obama conveys this information brought back my own parents and how they too, at a certain point, just gave up. There was a great deal of activity and hope when my younger brothers and sisters were preschoolers, and a great deal of excitement and enthusiasm as my mother pursued her dream of getting a college degree. There was some excitement or hope as my parents purchased a bigger house in Howard County, and perhaps some excitement for about a year when my mother started with a government job.

But at some point, my parents gave up, went to work every day, came home bored, and plopped in front of the television set, day after day, night after night. To this day, I have an aversion to television. It made me sad to see talented people give up on real life, awakened life, and this has driven me to strive for a different and less empty sort of life. I think this has helped me to embrace Olney: it will be harder, but it offers meaning.

I want to say that I think people can spend all day at work, if their jobs are where God means them to be, either to earn money or to serve him more directly, then come home and watch television and have lives filled with joy and meaning. What bothered me was not the outward circumstance of my parents; pattern of living as much as their overall evident dissatisfaction. I felt bad for them. I knew they were children of immigrants and in my mother's case, an immigrant herself, and that they were children of the Depression. Money and secure incomes were very, very important and they'd watched their own parents sacrifice for them. Both my grandmothers were cleaning ladies, as were many of the old aunts and female cousins, and they did these low-status jobs so their sons and nephews and grandsons could go to college and have a better life (and marry the daughters in the community, giving them a better life). But my parents sacrificed everything --their very selves -- for money. I knew that, according to their lights, they were doing what they felt they were supposed to be doing, and that if it didn't bring them happiness, they didn't know what else to do. So they gave up. Bought lottery tickets. Dreamed vaguely of --what else? -- having the money not to work.

So can we say that idleness, laziness and sloth might be defined as not doing that which God calls us to do? That, ironically, that idleness can masquerade as busy-ness and hard work, when in fact, that work is keeping us from the harder, albeit probably slower, work that God is calling us to do?

Anyway, I struggle with the urge to busy-ness versus the deeper voice that usually says slower is better. And I don't want to sound harsh towards people who are doing the best they can. In some ways, people who sacrifice their very selves for duty need to be honored and not criticized. None of this is easy.

1 comment:

Bill Samuel said...

One tip. Never write your posts online. Always write them offline, and then copy them in. People who do it online always run into problems. You won't have to worry about difficulty about losing your access to the blog if you write offline. You'll only need a minute to post, and if it fails, it's easy enough to just go back and paste it in again.

And writing offline, you can keep saving your work, which usually is not possible online.

Take a tip from someone who's been writing stuff, sometimes for real money, for online publication for more than a dozen years.