Last week while eating lunch at Coffee Culture courtesy of a parishioner’s gift card, I felt them: the twitches of meaningless impulse. Open up the MacBook. Check the iPhone. Write a few notes. Skim the newspaper. These twitches were both mental and physical: adrenaline-fueled, microbursts of habit energy. I saw Ronald Reagan smiling and delivering his famous 1980 debate line to me: “There you go again.”
This is Mindfulness 101! When you eat, eat. When you read, read. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” I know all this stuff, but even with pray-meditating twenty minutes twice or thrice daily, I constantly forget. Early into my huge Caesar salad and spicy ambush chili, I remembered, “John, you’re allowed to just eat. You don’t have to be doing something else.” As I replay that moment, the image of my late dad pops up, his fussy dementia hands going: fidget, fix, reach, button, smooth, worry. Madness.
Don’t be afraid. This is not a rant, kvetch, or lament. Like everybody else, I’m responsible for the state of my own interior, which is getting some special attention these days. This morning I sip coffee and release my old inventory of anxiety, breath by breath. I’m good—well, getting better, let’s say. By 10:00 a.m. I’ll be at Mount Saint Benedict Monastery, trying to stay ahead of worries in progress.
In the words of the recently departed Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?” Is it just me, or is it quite a chore to remain centered as this new millennium clears its throat? Assemble the following ingredients: middle-class income, spiffy technology, and submission to contemporary attitudes toward time and labor; then, bam, like Emeril Lagasse, add pinches of garden-variety stress and a personal crisis or two. What do you get? You get a guy with an expanding torso, irritated tongue, jerking brain and muscles, and pleading spirit: For God’s sake, relax, will you.
The first thirty or so years of my life weren’t jerky. When I think about growing up and even college and graduate studies, 2014’s brisk march of time and frenzy of labor comes into clear view. For years I’ve had Han Solo’s bad feeling about this. Recently I happened upon an article by Dr. Peter Gray, who put some good words to my concerns. He graduated from high school in 1962, a year after I was born, but his description of childhood sounds a lot like mine:
In the 1950s, when I was a child, we had ample opportunity to play. We had school, but school was not the big deal that it is today. Some people might not remember, but the school year then was five weeks shorter than it is today. The school day was six hours long, but at least in elementary school, two of those hours were outdoors playing. We had half-hour recess in the morning, half-hour recess in the afternoon, a full hour lunch. We could go wherever we wanted during that period. We were never in the classroom more than an hour at a time or for four hours a day. It just wasn’t the big deal, and homework for elementary school children was essentially unheard of. There was some homework for high school students, but much, much less than today. Out of school, we had chores. Some of us had part-time jobs, but for the most part, we were free to play for hours a day after school, all day on weekends, all summer long.
I don’t know about the shorter school year, but Gray nails it for the 60s and 70s. I neither noticed nor appreciated the wide fields of time that opened up after school and in the summer. My single academic stress was trigonometry. Bless his heart, teacher Chet—an old anomaly who went by his first name—gave me a passing D one quarter to save my National Honor Society hide. Beyond that, my turmoil had to do with divorced parents and withering nerves with the ladies. But when my twenty-two-year-old Micah was in school, the whole family was constantly stressed. The homework was oppressive, especially for a kid who didn’t engage well with books and worksheets. I’m out of the loop now, but can’t imagine the expectations have eased much, if at all.
One of my favorite memories is of Micah’s fourth-grade teacher talking to wife Kathy and me about our son’s messy daily planner. “Daily planner?” I thought, “Micah’s follow through with toilet paper is sketchy, and you want him to keep a to do list? You’ve got to be &^%$# kidding me!” Of course, we nodded politely. Twenty-six-year-old daughter Elena faired much better academically, knocking off homework in study hall and devoting her teenage suffering to bi-polar disorder—at least we think that’s what it was. For me, 1988 through 2012 was a long stretch of parental confusion and convulsion peppered generously with joy.
It would be whiney of me to blame academics for Micah’s troubles growing up, but I saw in his school experience seeds that have grown into the view of life that had me jangled over my lunch last week. I should first say that my son had many wonderful, skillful, appropriately affectionate teachers. My only gripe is with a few along the way who seemed to dislike children.
I get the impression that lots of teachers are frustrated by the Weltanschauung that stresses kids out and has adults multi-tasking themselves into hemorrhages. (Check out the excellent reflections of my blogging friend Beachmum for some insights on how some teachers feel.) We’re caught in a powerful current, a way of being that constantly vexes gladness. This way, the delight of pharmaceuticals, is driven by hubris and faulty assumptions.
We humans are overconfident in our knowledge. It’s an attitude thing. How many of us got pudgy twenty years ago because we watched our fat intake and gorged at the carbohydrate trough? One at least. Today, we’re assured that the sophistication and competence of the United States health care system make an Ebola outbreak here highly unlikely. Forgive my dis-ease. This has nothing to do with researchers, doctors, and nurses, who no doubt take their work seriously and have good intentions. But what seem to me to be preliminary findings are regarded as conclusive.
I may be in the minority, but the precaution of requiring people who have worked closely with Ebola patients to lay low for three weeks seems reasonable to me. Zipping Kaci Hickox into a tent was perhaps unwarranted—even though the tent was inside a hospital building, not outside as I foolishly first thought—but asking her to avoid contact with folks for a while is prudent. Given the ferocity of Ebola, the fuss over a twenty-one-day quarantine is surprising. Is that really a burdensome sentence, even if all the evidence suggests that a health care professional isn’t contagious? I suppose if you’re absolutely positive that we know all there is to know about Ebola, then ¾ of a month feels like a year. (More on time later.)
Kaci Hickox could probably use a port-a-potty, not wash her hands, and stick her fingers in thousands of Maine residences’ mouths and not pass along a single case of Ebola. In fact, I’m not worried, but I do harrumph at the prevailing lack of humility, any sense that our knowledge might be incomplete, indignation toward those who maintain skepticism, and willingness to sling lawsuits so quickly. And Hickox’s comment that her treatment was “really inhumane” may be a stretch. Newark’s University Hospital didn’t shove her adrift on an ice flow; they put her in an indoor tent and brought her Kentucky Fried Chicken.
My point with the examples of carbohydrates and Ebola is that once we’ve decided we know something about science, we dig in our heels. According to Peter Gray, what we know about education and child psychology might also be mucking up future adults. In his aforementioned article, he identifies . . .
a “school-ish view of child development” – the view that children learn best everything from adults; that children’s own, self-directed activities with other children are wastes of time. We don’t often say it that way, but that’s the implicit understanding that underlies so much of our policy with regard to children, so childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of resume-building.
Gray presents convincing evidence that our adult impulse to micro-manage childhood learning and development (i.e. not letting kids play, make up their own rules, work out their own conflicts, and generally not getting the hell out of the way and leave them be) is burdening a generation. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have been on the rise in recent decades. (Here’s a link to his article, “Kids Today Are More Depressed Than They Were During the Great Depression. Here’s Why” if you want his numbers.) My concern: like Gray, I remember when my habit energy wasn’t jangled and so have a shot at making changes to restore my peace. But what if all you’ve ever known is a relentless impulse to accomplish something and a haunting sense that if you’re playing or resting, then you’re wasting time? Gray argues that there is a crucial, “evolutionary function of play.” Again, follow that link if you want to explore his reasoning.
Our experience of time is irrationally rushed and troubled. Isn’t this really the impulse that drives multi-tasking, texting while driving perhaps being the most hazardous example? On his television show Phil Donahue used to hold the microphone in audience members’ faces and say, “So little time.” Those words knuckle our heads and slap our asses. You need to perform several actions at once because you don’t feel like you have enough time.
I offer one flimsy piece of evidence, a phrase that is regularly spoken by my adult children: real quick. Catch the urgency? “Dad, can I see your laptop real quick?” “Dad, can you hold [grandson] Cole real quick?” My thought is generally, “No.” I want you to use my laptop for as long as you need it. And, damn it, you hand me that baby, it ain’t going to be real quick.
As proof that we can safely slow down, I present Milton Sontheimer of blessed memory. Toward the end of his life, which came about a month ago, congestive heart failure had reduced his pace to a crawl, but Milton always moved as if he had more time than he needed. The walls of his home with now-widowed Mary are crowded with his paintings. For years, he baked Communion bread for our church and wrapped it in foil, using and reusing the same piece until wrinkles rendered it flimsy. Wise Milton: no rush—and no waste.
We assume that because technology exists, we should make full use of it. Many thoughtful people are aware of this observation, but I want to credit the last two sages who have brought it to my attention: Beachmum, whom I’ve already referenced (I read back some ways, Mum, and couldn’t find the citation; I know you wrote it, though), and Dr. Brad Binau, a professor from my days at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, whom I mentioned in a recent post. Smart phones, tablets, notebooks, and laptops exercise centripetal force—literally, almost, considering how often my ear and nose are smashed up against my iPhone.
We peer over our reading glasses at people who are apparently lost, confused, or just making up their minds. I’ve learned to be watchful for what I call periods of discernment both in myself and others. In thirteen years as a parish pastor I’ve sat with scores of pilgrims on their way to new lands of the spirit. They wonder what to tell loved ones who want to know what’s up. I suggest, “Tell them you’re taking some time to figure things out.” These are stretches of months, even years, to honor, not stampede through. A couple days ago I heard the following what-I’m-saying story on The Writer’s Almanac about the poet C. K. Williams:
His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that’s where he thought a poet ought to live. He didn’t write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn’t know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: “It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness.”
My point, I guess: if I’m not willing to be lost, I might not ever be found.
Endnote: I did make it to Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. (Obviously I wrote much of this post after my retreat.) I won’t bore you with the whole day, other than to pass along two details. 1.) I took a three-hour nap in the afternoon; the twitches of habit energy wear a guy out. And 2.) I noticed while reciting psalms with the sisters that they spoke more quickly than in the past. Their recitation is still spacious, but the gentle silence between verses is now thin. I don’t know why.
Lord, spare the sisters and us all from contemporary adrenaline and grant us mindful, humble impulses.