Superficiality is the curse of our age. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
—Richard J. Foster
My dad wrote this quote in 1978. Some 40 years later, it feels as relevant as ever. Yet, the reigning emperor of curses that threatens the growth of our souls has a new leader — distraction.
If we were able to look at human history in its entirety, I wonder what would be the defining characteristics of our present era? I wonder if we would be the only ones living with extreme anxiety and stress for reasons other than basic survival? Would we be the ones busily scurrying about while spending all of our down time staring at boxes for entertainment and “human” interaction?
It’s almost normal to carelessly rush from one thing and place to the next at such a hurried pace that we barely have time to rest or eat. Filling all of the empty spaces of our days with things that keep us from quality connections with God and others has become a culturally accepted addiction with frightening spiritual and relational consequences.
So few of us seem able to live deliberately paced lives fully present to God and others.
I’ve come up with a statement to mirror my dad’s:
“Distraction is the curse of our age. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of efficient people, or busy people, but for present people.”
Yet, I love my distractions. Not only are they fun and interesting, they work so well to protect me from feeling anything unpleasant. Readily available entertainment and crowded schedules easily keep sadness and boredom at bay. Not to mention how the rush of productivity from checking a mess of things off my to-do list not only builds my sense of self, but gives me a profound feeling of worth and value. Never mind what God says about me. When I’m rushing around, not allowing myself rest, when I’m busy and efficient, the world says I’m important.
Spiritual growth is nearly impossible without silence and space. God doesn’t seem in the habit of bulldozing his way through all the diversions we choose to use to fill our lives. Instead, patiently he waits for us to choose to be present.
For me to be present I have to slow down. The solution is one simple word — NO. Everything I say yes to comes with a no to something else, and so often the things I end up saying no to are the things most important to me: spiritual life, relationships, health, balance, or the energy needed to faithfully complete my current commitments. Vigilance to guard space and be fully present to what is sacred is required. The busyness of my life is usually the result of decisions I made months ago. In a sense, not taking the time to properly order my life is a sort of laziness. It requires great courage to not put off tough decisions of what I will and won’t do.
I cannot think of a greater way to bring about genuine transformation in the spiritual life of the Church than to become a people who say no to busyness, hurry, and distraction, and willingly organize our lives in such a manner to be fully present to God and each other, living a life learning to love well. Of course this would require us to face the normal emotions of the human experience, viewing boredom as an opportunity to dwell in deep places and to grow. It means choosing to intentionally structure our lives in healthy ways. It means saying no to good things, even things we really want to do.
As soon as we start saying no, our fear of disappointing others and ourselves is revealed. We are forced to confront all of the ways we have placed and formed our identities on what we do rather than who we are.
For some, this is too painful a process and they will quickly retreat to the comfort a fully distracted life affords. However, if we allow God to tenderly love us through the reality of our brokenness, we will become able to confess and surrender the greed and lust of wanting to do more and be more. Setting boundaries is facing our own mortality and accepting the fact that God designed humans with limitations. With a sort of playful joy, I conclude some places to visit and new projects to start will just have to wait for eternity.
Of course, for some, mere survival can demand pushing ourselves into unhealthy distracted lives, but even in the midst of a multitude of jobs, caring for children and parents, there are choices that can help us to be more present.
This summer my eight-year-old son and I visited Colorado to hike a 14,000 foot mountain with my dad. Having three generations on Mount Evans was so special. Much of my task for that hike was to teach my son how to pace himself up the mountain so he wouldn’t burn out, not an easy task for an energetic boy! In order to handle such a steep hike, it is critical that you learn to move at a sustainable pace. The altitude is brutal, and if you go too fast, you’ll repeatedly tire and summiting becomes extremely painful if not impossible. It’s surprising and quite difficult for new people to learn just how slow a livable hiking pace on a mountain of this size is.
Two things always occur when I find my pace on a mountain. First, I’m amazed, and even relieved, at how achievable long climbs up a steep pitch become. The seemingly unattainable becomes possible when I move at a livable pace. Second, I begin to notice things I didn’t see before: the abundance of small and intricate flowers that push up among the succulent plants scattered about, gentle yet strong, thriving in the harshest of climates; the curve of the sky; the artistry of speckled minerals locked within the boulders and stones. The metaphors for life are easily revealed. What beauty and lessons do I miss out on when I’m moving at a frantic pace filling my days with distractions? Just how do I find and maintain my pace in life?
I’ve climbed a number of mountains and each time finding my pace is uncomfortable and often painful. Facing ourselves and our limitations can feel lonely and even hopeless. However, on the other side I begin to feel more human, like waking up from a dream, and wondering why I don’t slow down more often.
In order to find my pace in life, the first thing I have to do is throw away everything I think I know about efficiency and productivity. I have a feeling God’s math on these matters is quite different than mine. Yet, I am bombarded with thoughts that things need to get done. How do I tease out what is a real responsibility and what is a self-imposed responsibility?
I keep thinking that if I could only get caught up on things, get my house and life arranged in such a way, then I could slow down. But, I don’t think that’s the answer. I have to learn how to slow down now, in the midst of a nagging to-do list.
This last month of slowing down is bringing a new peace in the present moment. I find I rather enjoy walking slowly. Arriving at a meeting early is a little awkward, but much better than the anxiety of rushing around. I put a cap on how often I can check my email. Surprisingly this was extremely helpful as my phone makes it way too easy for me live distracted. At times I can see the benefits of my computer processing information at a slow pace, it gives me a small break, a space to breathe and pray. (But mostly it just frustrates me.) Ultimately, fewer things got checked off my to-do list this month. I’m not sure how I feel about that. But, I did take more space to be with my kids and have started making some helpful changes in my life regarding respecting my limitations. I’m reminded that what we do in the short-term with the disciplines almost always has its results in the long-term.
I don’t think I’m very good at the discipline of slowing. But, I try. I try to become meditative in my writing and in answering emails. I try to stop compartmentalizing my life. I remind myself that it’s okay to leave some things undone, that ultimately I’ll die with an unfinished to-do list and the world will get by just fine.
There will always be seemingly productive and good matters that beg for my attention and that can easily overtake all that is important in life. I remember that I am not a slave to my to-do list nor to my technology. They are there to serve me. And so I question whether or not distractions that feel entertaining are actually good for me, or whether they simply assist in keeping me from having to deal with growing in patience or learning more about my brokenness.
God is in the habit of using the disciplines to transform the human personality, but it takes time, lots of time. As we find our pace in life and in our little spiritual practices, God is ever eager to help and guide. Waiting with a still small voice welcoming us into a life ruled by his decrees of love and goodness, and a life that functions well — a Kingdom life.