When my children were young, I would often prescribe a timeout whenever they misbehaved. This relatively mild form of discipline was frequently met with a dramatic show of resistance — with loud wails and dragging feet. Listening to their cries of anguish, an outside observer might have concluded that I had just ordered them to stand in front of a firing squad or jump into a fiery pit. What, I wondered, was so terrible about being sent to your room — a place that you had helped to decorate in bright colors and where you had toys and books to amuse you? If only someone, I thought, would send me to my room. I would have loved a regular timeout — a moment to rest, to gather my thoughts, and be still.
Historian James Truslow Adams tells the story of an explorer cum anthropologist who worked with indigenous people in the upper Amazon. After receiving news that he needed to leave the jungle for a time, the explorer enlisted the help of a local chief and some others for a three-day march out. Their hurried expedition made great progress on days one and two. But when it was time to break camp on the third day, the explorer was surprised to find that the men refused to budge. Questioned about the reason for the delay, the chief explained: “They are waiting. They cannot move farther until their souls have caught up with their bodies.”
The story strikes an immediate chord because it captures the sense of “blur” that characterizes much of modern life. No matter what we do or decide, it seems that life inevitably speeds up. Living at warp speed propels us into a way of life in which stress becomes endemic.
As we careen through our days, it can feel as though life is slipping out of control, pushing us to move from one activity to another.
Interestingly, the man who brought us the story of the Amazonian natives also coined the phrase the “American Dream.” Could it be that our cultural dream, despite all the good it has produced, is in danger of running us off track, preventing many of us from enjoying the peace that comes from living in rhythm with nature and our own limitations? Perhaps our dogged pursuit of success has made us a little like children who think timeouts are designed for one purpose only — to ruin all their fun.
John Ortberg tells of asking a wise friend for spiritual direction after he and his family had moved to Chicago several years ago. That friend was Dallas Willard. Here’s how Ortberg recounts their conversation. “I described the pace of life in my current ministry. The church where I serve tends to move at a fast clip. I also told him about our rhythms of family life: we are in the van-driving, soccer-league, piano-lesson, school-orientation-night years. I told him about the present condition of my heart, as best I could discern it. What did I need to do, I asked him, to be spiritually healthy?”
Long pause. “ ‘You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life,’ he said at last.
“Another long pause.“ ‘Okay, I’ve written that one down,’ I told him, a little impatiently. ‘That’s a good one. Now what else is there?’ I had many things to do, and this was a long-distance call, so I was anxious to cram as many units of spiritual wisdom into the least amount of time possible.
“Another long pause.“ ‘There is nothing else,’ he said. ‘You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.’ ”
Ortberg concluded that hurry is indeed the enemy of spiritual health, quoting Carl Jung, who remarked that “hurry is not of the devil. It is the devil.”
Perhaps that explains why I have never been able to rid myself of one of my least favorite memories. It happened when I was in high school. I was late for class. After stepping out of the car and into the school parking lot, I noticed a sparrow lying injured and broken on the ground. As an animal lover, my first instinct was to pick it up, cradle it in my hands, and make a beeline for help. But I didn’t want to be late. So I suppressed the instinct, stepped past the little bird, and hurried into school. I still feel guilty about that choice.
Maybe you have heard of the Good Samaritan Experiment. Researchers at Princeton Seminary instructed several undergraduate seminary students, telling them that their task was to walk over to another building to deliver a talk to a group of freshman students. Half the subjects were instructed to talk about employment opportunities while the rest were told to discuss the parable of the good Samaritan. The seminary students were also told one of three things. First, that they had a few extra minutes to get to the venue for their talk.
Second, that they had just enough time. Or third, that they were already late and needed to hurry. As the students walked over one by one to the building where they were expecting to deliver their talk, they encountered a man slumped against a wall, apparently in need of assistance. The researchers wondered whether the students with the parable of the good Samaritan in mind would be more likely to stop and help. The unsettling truth was that plenty of these students saw the man and just kept walking. The determining factor of who would help and who would not had little to do with what the students were thinking about but everything to do with how hurried they felt.
More than forty years ago, Thomas Merton contended that the pressures of modern life can themselves become a form of violence, saying that “to allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence… It kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Living under this kind of pressure can disrupt our relationships, because pressure seeks an outlet. Too often it erupts as irritability and frustration. Slow-moving drivers, dawdling children, coworkers who need help, a job that takes longer than we anticipated — all can be reduced to obstacles we must fight to overcome. In the midst of the chaos we never step back to think deeply about anything nor do we listen for God’s voice. Under such circumstances, it is hard for anyone to flourish.
The poet Judy Brown reminds us that what makes a fire burn is not just the logs but the space that exists between the logs. Without air a fire will soon burn down to nothing. To use another metaphor, borrowed from book design, we all need to build some white space into our lives. Try reading a page jammed full of text. It’s not a pleasant experience. Space between the letters and the lines, space to make a margin around the text — this is what makes reading easy on the eye.
Similarly, too many good things packed into too few days will destroy our passion for life, leaving us frustrated, tired, and depleted.
Excerpted with permission from The Peace God Promises by Ann Spangler, copyright Zondervan
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Does this speak to you as much as it does for me? My life tends to fill up to a chaos level and busy-ness eats into my resting time before I even realize it, and then quickly into my sleeping time which is pretty dangerous for someone prone to sleep-deprivation crankiness! I just recently started chunking out an hour or two every couple of days not to catch up on everything I haven’t completed, but to rest my mind, nap, meditate, do something relaxing, take a walk, etc. So far, I’m completely smitten with those hours and my soul feels much more at peace. How are you ruthlessly eliminating hurry from your life? Come join the conversation on our blog! We want to hear from you about taking a Mama Time-Out! ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full