A series of articles on developing a life of simplicity
by The Rev. Canon Renée Miller
Simplicity of Activity
Rabbi Mendel often complained:
"As long as there were no roads, you had to interrupt a journey at nightfall. Then you had all the leisure in the world to recite psalms at the inn, to open a book, and to have a good talk with one another. But nowadays you can ride on these roads day and night and there is no peace any more." --From Tales of the Hasidim
And so another day begins. The hectic nature of daily life swings into full gear as we prepare to engage in the activities that seem to claim our lives -- caring for children, commuting, working, going to meetings, shopping, paying bills, getting the car fixed, coaching Little League, phoning family members, mailing off packages to distant relatives, cooking, cleaning, caring for pets
. We know that we are over-committed, but when we look at the roles we play and the tasks of each role, there seems to be little chance of whittling down our responsibilities.
this arena of frenetic activity, we become easy prey
for the promises of advertisers and marketers. They persuade us that if we will buy just one more thing, the responsibilities that feel so onerous and time-consuming will be relieved. They will sell us convenience foods to lighten the burden of cooking, computers that can manage our information and keep us connected with others without demanding our personal presence, cell phones and fax machines so that we can get our activities completed no matter where we are, paper organizers and PDAs so that our numerous activities can be classified and categorized, portable phones so that we can do more than one activity at a time. But, at the end of the day, we still feel like we've been run over by a Mack truck. Our body is weary and our soul is empty. We seem to lack the sense of significance and fulfillment that we thought we were supposed to have in life.
we examine the activity of our lives closely and objectively,
we often find that much of our energy is being given away
to activities imposed on us by people who believe that
what is really important in life is 'getting things done.' We all want to be valued and valuable, so we work to 'get things done' even when it leaves us feeling dead in the midst of life. We find it difficult to extract ourselves from this repetitive, routinized way of 'being' in the world, because we have misunderstood the role of activity in our lives.
Over-Commitment Is Not an Issue of Time
Unfortunately, the business model of 'getting things done' has pervaded family life, church life, and community life. There is hardly any space left in the midst of a day to give energy to the activity of 'becoming' who and what we were made to be. While we naturally conclude that this is a modern problem, Jesus encountered the issue centuries ago. It is a story that reminds me of many family dinners I have attended! Jesus' friend Lazarus had invited him to dinner. After he had accepted the invitation, Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, began to prepare to welcome their visitor. When Jesus arrived, Mary was so excited about seeing him that she left off helping her sister, because she wanted to be with Jesus. She sat down on the floor and listened carefully to all the things that he had to say. Martha, on the other hand, was continuing her preparations and was getting angrier by the minute. When she had reached her patience threshold, she went out into the living room and said to Jesus, "Aren't you going to tell my sister to help me? Here I am doing all the work, while she sits and does nothing." (Sound familiar?) Jesus' answer is profound. "Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things. Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken from her."
Jesus was not advocating that we all sit around and do nothing. He was saying that we must not allow activity to steal the best part of life from us. 'Getting things done' is necessary to life, but it is only one part of the experience of life. We
need activity and accomplishment, but not at the expense
of the loss of our own inner identity or the neglect
of the relationships that are a part of making us more
fully human, more fully alive. We need awareness and the presence of mind to keep
soul-making and task-making in a healthy balance. The story about Mary and Martha reminds us that the problem of being over-committed is not a time issue;it is a spiritual issue. We find ourselves unable to step off the never-ending task treadmill because we are trying to apply a work/business model to an issue of the soul.
The dictionary definition of activity is: 'an exertion of energy.' Every human being can identify with that understanding of activity. We certainly know how we feel when we have exerted too much energy. We become depleted and exhausted. We then scurry about trying to find ways to create more energy in ourselves so that we can continue to perform and produce activity at an acceptable level. The folly of this strategy is that we never address the core issue of the soul -- that of being participants in the great creative work of God. Ideally, activity is not task-driven but inner directed. We are invited to 'show up' at life and exert our energy in being astonished at the wonder of God, in becoming fully human and fully alive, and in being a part of the imaginative creative development of this enterprise called life. In other words, we were not created simply to complete tasks that could be checked off from a daily to-do list. We were created to 'become' and to 'participate.'
An old priest was walking along the street and saw a peasant woman busy weaving a basket. She was so focused on her activity that she didn't even look up as the priest came near her. The priest asked her what she was doing. She quickly told him that she did not have time to talk to him. The priest persisted and asked her again what she was doing. She still refused to look up and merely said that she was weaving her basket and couldn't be interrupted. The priest said that he understood, but he still wondered what she, herself, was doing. When there still was no response the priest said to her "Everything that you are worried about is in the hands of God. You need only have a reverence for and astonishment of God." The peasant woman looked up from her work and for the flash of an instant was reverently astonished.
The real issue is that we have allowed our lives to become so full that every ounce of our energy must be spent just trying to get everything done. It takes 'looking up' and being 'reverently astonished' to see that our focus has been misplaced. It takes 'looking up' and being 'reverently astonished' to see how robotic we have become. It
takes 'looking up' and being 'reverently astonished'
to finally see the wonder of the life that we have been
given. So take a chance. Look up from your work for a moment and be reverently astonished.
Surprisingly, you will then have a sense of how to balance your activities with the call to 'become' and 'participate' in this exciting expedition of life. Of course, you will continue to be asked to take on new roles and responsibilities, and you will continue to look for ways to eliminate unnecessary activity in your life. The following questions may help you gain a clearer perspective of what is claiming your life:
- Does the energy I exert in this effort lessen me or make more of me?
- Does this activity deepen or diminish my relationships with others?
- How can this activity help me be a part of the creative work of God?
Ending and Beginning
And so, we come to the end of this series on simplicity. But the journey of simplicity is just beginning. In the first article, I said that it isn't easy to be simple, but there are two reasons for doing it anyway. First, simplicity makes it possible for life to become uncomplicated enough so that the mind can become clear, revealing what is truly important and fulfilling. Secondly, simplicity makes it possible to live on the edge of miracle. As you move forward, you will find that it is all too easy to revert to old habits, and you may even become discouraged because simplicity seems to be as complex as the aspects of life it is meant to enhance. While you can't go back to a way of life that existed before the complexity of modern times, you still have the capacity for finding the truth and clarity of your inner spirit. So, when you feel overwhelmed by simplicity and are tempted to halt the journey, visualize sitting by the side of a calm glassy lake with the shimmering sun reflecting gently off the water. Remember that the reason for simplicity is to bring that same beautiful stillness to the wonder of your own soul.
Copyright ©2002 Renée Miller.
Read Installment 1: "Slipping Into Simplicity"