The value of “doing” less and “being” more

“Go placidly, amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence…” (Max Ehrmann)

Every morning I see these famous words (and those that follow) displayed on my bathroom wall. Yet today was one of those days when I was reminded what these words actually mean for my daily living, and how bad I can be at putting this wisdom into action in my life and walk with Jesus.

I was sunny after church and as we have not seen the sun a lot these past 10 days, I decided to take the long route home from church via Cassiobury Park. I walked slowly as I was tired (I don’t naturally gravitate towards the 9.15 am service) and there was no reason to rush; I looked around me because I had the time to do so; I sat on a bench for an hour with the sun shining on my face, feeling the wind in my back, at times noticing the people around me and the children or dogs playing, at times engrossed in my own reading and alone in my sunny bubble.

After that I walked home—again, slowly, and via the long route: when the path got shady and I wanted sun, I walked off the track through the grass and bushes to where the sun was;  I did not have my ipod on and so I could hear sounds which I so often fail to hear: birds singing—so many different types of them; the distant laughter of children; the rustle of the leaves in the trees; even a funny nibbling noise beneath one large tree which turned out to be 4-5 squirrels sitting on different branches, munching away at something. Standing there, dead- still so as not to frighten them away, made me realise that there were flakes of green leaves gently drifting to the ground all around me……..the spoils of whatever it was the squirrels were feasting on. I walked on and noticed trees in all shapes and sizes, some with leaves already changing colours, others hosting impressive cones, some set against the backdrop of a deep blue sky, some striped due to the way the sunlight was falling on them. It was magnificent, it was life-giving; and I have come back from that walk more energised, more refreshed, deeply at peace and with a profound knowledge that God was talking to me through all this beauty, through the silence, through the time I gave Him by not having a zillion and one things spinning through my head all at the same time. And that, let me tell you, is rare.

Why is it so hard in our world to “just be”? After all, wise men and women before us have already said it all and given us the guidance that we need to take time out to just be silent, to just exist, without striving: words from a poem by William Henry Davies spring to mind-“what is life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare” (my grandmother wrote it in my poetry book when I was only 7 year old and I always knew she was onto something); Charlie Chaplin touched on it in his poem “As I began to love myself” (which I recently spotted printed out on a dear friend’s wall and have, since, also displayed in my own flat); as Christians, we are often called to just sit and be in the company of Jesus, hearing his “still small voice of calm”;  to seek and enjoy “the peace of God which transcends all understanding” which will guard our hearts and minds;  to practise the quietness and trust which, as He tells us, is our strength (Isaiah 30:15).  A few years ago, at my London church, one of our associate pastors put an armchair under the cross at the front of the church and invited us to think about being with God as just sitting in an arm chair by Jesus’ feet—simply being, listening to Him.

It all seems so obvious. So why is it that I (and perhaps others?) find it so hard to truly act on all of this, to stop stressing, running about, planning?  Three things sprung to my mind today as I watched those squirrels:

Busy-ness –a characteristic of modern society: There is so much going on in our modern world: constant sound and little silence; instant news available on the internet and social networking pages; possibilities to travel almost anywhere in the world either virtually or even in person. Entertainment at the click of a button, an event available for all moods, which we can know about in seconds.

Consequently, we are always running off to our next activity: our next meeting at work, the school run, the next extracurricular activity, the next volunteering role, the next party or get-together with friends. Even (or perhaps especially) in Christian circles, we are constantly rushing from doing one ministry to the next…..there is always a pressure to become involved in more, help out more, do more, especially with a shortage of volunteers for so many important parts of our service and outreach to others. Sometines this pressure comes from within ourselves.  Of course all of these activities are laudable per se, a glorious part of being human and a functioning member of society. I am not dismissing any of them.  But could we—at least sometimes—just “do” a little bit less and “be” a little bit more? So what if the cleaning does not get done one week-end? So what if I can only serve in my chosen ministry only one day per month? After all, if everyone plays their role, surely we can spread the load between us?

Busy-ness can be a sign of our flawed quest for true identity: Sometimes it can be hard to define exactly why we do the things we do.  At times, I work hard because the workload is heavy and because I have to; other times—and these are the dodgy moments- I have buried myself in work for the wrong reasons.  Recently, for example, I have over-worked to cover up disappointment about being single, a sadness about not having children, a general sense of unease about turning 40 and remnants of post-traumatic stress. I buried myself in my self-created identity of “the busy aid-worker” to feel in control and attribute meaning to my life.  True, I was busy, but I was not just working for that reason and so something which is intrinsically beautiful—my commitment to work hard to help others in need—was not only tainted by this driving/striving motive underpinning it, but also backfired and ultimately caused me harm.Any activity we become engaged in, any role we take up, any calling we pursue can be distorted in this way.

As soon as we gain our identity from any kind of label, we are no longer “just being”, no longer truly trusting that our strength lies in quietness and trust, no longer living in the safe knowledge that our identity is something much more innate, God-given. It is not a job, parenthood, being married (or single), having a big house, being pretty, being fit, being thin or whatever label we may be striving to bestow upon ourselves that makes us “us” and gives us meaning.  If we fail to see that, we are at great risk.  Because the day we are stripped of this false identity which we have built for ourselves, it can feel like the world is crumbling around us, that we no longer have value and purpose.  That can, at worst, have devastating consequences and lead to people withering when they could be flourishing; at best, we feel despondent and sad—so unnecessary, given we could feel secure in who we are and in the potential of all the gifts and talents which we have been given and which are more permanent than our jobs, our roles in life and society.

Busy-ness as a way of overcoming the lows in life: Sometimes we know that we are not feeling good and want to seek immediate solutions to what is making us uneasy, sad or hurt. Not happy in my job?- Let me busy myself at week-ends and in the evenings with job-hunting. Sad about being single?-Let me spend every spare minute of my day on dating website and events so that I meet someone. Feeling a little lonely?- Let me cram my diary full of events, or watch TV every evening so that there are no silences and so that I am entertained 24/7.

Overall, there is a growing tendency in our society to throw away things which are no longer perfect, to seek quick fixes or an easy way out: if something breaks, we no longer lovingly repair it; if we are hungry we order a take away instead of cobbling together a healthy meal from what is in our fridges; if our relationships are not working, we throw them away instead of talking about problems and trying to sort them out. Perhaps a gross generalisation but I know that I sometimes fall in the trap of these patterns of modern living, and it feels neither good nor right.

Sometimes, we just have to sit with the pain; allow ourselves to be,  experience the silence so we can hear ourselves think and discern what is making us unhappy; sometimes we simply need to cry the tears we need to cry or feel the discomfort we need to feel. The sadness, the discomfort, the pain may,  at times, be a sign that something in our lives need to change—time will tell and there will always be an opportunity to take action once we are really sure that this is the way to go. But more often than not, and especially in the beginning, we are best off just “sitting with it”, acknowledging that life is not always perfect and that sometimes we have seasons which are not so good. It is especially at times of discomfort and pain that we need to stop rushing and start enjoying silence; to make time to stand and stare, rather than going into instant problem-solving mood, with all the busy-ness that brings.

I need to get better at practising these truths and living in the present. What a huge gift my short walk in the part and squirrel watching has turned out to be today. I need to make more of such freebies and their uplifting, life-giving potential.

squirrel 1