A New Unity Sunday Gathering
Any Morning, by William Stafford
Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.
People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can't
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.
Little corners like this, pieces of Heaven
left lying around, can be picked up and saved.
People won't even see that you have them,
they are so light and easy to hide.
Later in the day you can act like the others.
You can shake your head. You can frown.
Playthings, by Rabindranath Tagore
Child, how happy you are sitting in the dust, playing with a broken twig all the morning.
I smile at your play with that little bit of a broken twig.
I am busy with my accounts, adding up figures by the hour.
Perhaps you glance at me and think, "What a stupid game to spoil your morning with!"
Child, I have forgotten the art of being absorbed in sticks and mud-pies.
I seek out costly playthings, and gather lumps of gold and silver.
With whatever you find you create your glad games, I spend both my time and my strength over things I never can obtain.
In my frail canoe I struggle to cross the sea of desire, and forget that I too am playing a game.
Message, by Andy Pakula
I learned something about football recently.
When there is a penalty kick, the keeper has to make a choice of jumping to the left, jumping to the right, or staying just in the centre.
Intuitively, it makes sense that going left or right is going to be better than staying still. Shouldn’t that put you in the right place half the time?
So it turns out that keepers that dive to the right stop the ball 12.6% of the time. Keepers that dive left do a little better - they stop it 14.2% of the time. But keepers who stay in the middle do best - they stop the ball 33.3% of the time.
But - here’s the interesting thing - keepers stay in the middle only 6.3% of the time. Keepers - like most everyone else - have a bias towards action. It feels better to be doing something. It looks better to miss the ball when you’re diving for it rather than standing in the middle while it sails by.
How many of you feel like you are too busy? And how many of you feel that that busyness is at least partly due to your own choices?
Perhaps you’ve found yourself saying something like the guy on the back of today’s handout: “I am insanely busy.” If you haven’t, then you’ve certainly heard it from people around you. “How are you?” “Oh, I’m just too busy” “I’m so busy.”
And these are not, mostly, people who are insanely busy because they have to work 80 or more hours a week at low-paid jobs so that they or their family can survive. We are talking about people who work more than they must at a job, several challenging hobbies, a few classes, meticulous cleaning, raising children, busy travels with tightly packed schedules, volunteering, and taking on more and more and more… They - like me - are people with a bias toward action. It is a bias that eats up their time.
If we don’t need to do it, why do we?
To some extent, many of us feel a pride in our busyness. It is like a badge of honour. It proves we are worthwhile. We are contributing somehow. We are not - that dreaded word - lazy. When I am busy, I feel virtuous. I feel immune to criticism and especially the accusation of that stinging L-word.
For laziness is sinful. Idle hands are the devil’s playground. We learn from our parents or the surrounding culture or both that we are only OK when we are busy. Being idle is not OK.
So that’s one key reason we make ourselves so busy - being idle is shameful.
There is more, though. If you can be idle and the world doesn’t completely fall off its axis - if the end-times do not immediately begin - if we are not all immediately swallowed up by fire and flood because you spent a completely unproductive hour… Well - then I guess you aren’t particular necessary after all.
Most of us want - most of us need - to feel that we are needed. We need to know that - were we to disappear as we eventually all will - we would be missed. People would notice. The world would be poorer for our absence.
And we make the mistake of thinking that we are only valued for what we do. If you think about the people you value most, you might just find that they are the ones who can be present. They are people who are able to just be with you - perhaps even wordlessly. It is their being - not their doing - that matters so much.
I want to offer one more reason for our busyness. It is perhaps the most insidious of the three and the hardest to confront. We are busy because if we stop being busy we will have time to feel. If we slow down - if we pause - we will be alone with all the thoughts and emotions of our lives. We will feel the sorrow of our disappointments. We will feel our anxieties about the future. We will feel our longings and our angers.
In this way, busyness is like a drug - it is like any addiction. It is something that we can use to blunt the pain and distract us enough that we don’t have to remember we are mortal, that our friend has cancer, that we’re not saving enough for retirement, that our children are struggling, that we hate our boss, that the world is unjust, that we never did get to do the thing we dreamed of as children…
Without the anaesthesia of busyness, we would have to feel all of this. If we allowed ourselves idleness, we would come face to face with the reality of life in all its intensity.
But that numbing comes at an enormous cost, as does any addiction. We give up the experiences that make life rich and meaningful. The events happen, of course. Things still happen to us and all those realities are around us, but just existing in the midst of events is not the same as experiencing events. We experience by being present to the happenings of our lives - not by checking our watches and smartphones whilst they’re happening. And we experience fully through reflection - by sitting with and being in the feelings and thoughts that follow. We grow through reflection on our experiences.
Without taking time - unstructured, unscheduled, unbusy time - we fail to live our lives.
The antidote to this addiction is, of course, to be mindful and deliberate about how we live. That means noticing how we spend our moments. It means not grabbing for the smartphone when there’s a queue to stand in or a wait for the bus. It means scheduling time to not do - time to be and think and be idle. It means the deliberate practice of idleness.
I’ve watched myself. When I allow myself a break, I tend to say “oh good, I can clean out the refrigerator” or “this is a good time to sew on that button.” It’s always about being productive. What if you decided to just be in a way that didn’t produce anything at all and didn’t keep yourself too busy to think and feel?
Imagine what it would feel like to practice idleness - even a little bit. In the midst of your day, taking an hour or even 30 minutes out to do nothing. Imagine the list of things to do sitting there staring at you - the deadlines coming up - the people who you imagine to judge you by what you achieve… And you decide to take an time to stroll aimlessly, to watch the clouds, to listen to the breeze, to examine a flower.
You might initially feel you don’t have the time. You have too much on to waste time like that. And - when you got close to doing it you might realise how much you have been putting aside. It might be hard to bear as thoughts and emotions - held back by busyness - come flooding over you.
Just imagining it makes me want to check my email and Facebook and Twitter and the news… But why not give it a try? Make yourself take time to practice idleness. Maybe it can’t be an hour. 10 minutes? The rules are that you can’t be productive and you can’t do anything that keeps your mind busy.
One essential thing you will need to do is to banish the word “lazy” from your vocabulary and your thoughts. What we call lazy is simply making choices - often procrastination - filling up our time to avoid things that we know will be hard or anxiety-provoking. Being idle is not easy - it is a goal to be worked toward.
Whether you are a keeper guarding the goal or anyone else in the normal living of a normal life, we have the action bias playing in our heads. The words it carries are “don’t just stand there, do something!”
Practice idleness. Turn this bias around.
“Don’t just do something, stand there.”