Inspired by Psalm 131
Life and Culture
Grace and Joy, in their fullest doses, are found in the belly of the whale. The full strength of our need and the full strength of God’s power is best tasted where self-sufficiency is rendered useless and where dependency upon God is all that remains. This is the irony of human freedom found only in bondage to the divine. God is in the business of swallowing us––heart, mind, and body––as baptism symbolizes. Truly, “grace is no nibbler. It swallows and carries us whole” (Carolyn Weber, Holy Is the Day).
“Speculum Darmstadt” by Anonymous
– ULB Darmstadt. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Eeyore’s “woe is me” attitude is cute only on television. In real life, he’s hard to live with. In real life, his morose brooding is more contagious than Influenza and a hundred times more dangerous.
Don’t be a moper.
Don’t be a fake, either.
Follow God into your dark days and listen for what he has to say to you. Then, start singing that message to the world and let your face shine in the darkness…not with a fake “grin and bear it” attitude, but with the joy of The Lord which is your strength.
This resolution, like all others that are hard, will require the Holy Spirit: I hereby resolve to live authentically, purposefully, and humbly…joyful.
The Eeyore in me is dead. Anyone want to join me?
My friend lost power to her attached garage the other day. The house had electricity, but everything powered through the garage was dead. The garage door wouldn’t open. The sprinklers didn’t work. I traced the problem backwards and spent a good thirty minutes sleuthing the cause, but to no avail. I was on the verge of giving up when I discovered the tiny (and I really mean “tiny”) source of this mini blackout.
Everything in her garage was plugged into one outlet and that outlet featured a small circuit-breaker inside. It’s commonly called a GFCI outlet. Most of the time, this outlet acts like any other outlet and we forget it’s there. But when the difference in electrical current changes, the GFCI shuts off the electrical flow in .025 seconds. Electricity is useful, but dangerous and a GFCI helps save lives. In this case, it also prevents one from opening the garage and running the sprinklers.
What was my tip? I noticed a small yellow light on the outlet that indicated it had been tripped. I pushed the button, which reset the outlet, and everything worked again. How remarkable that something so small, so overlooked, so easily taken for granted, could so dramatically shut everything down.
I don’t know what caused the circuit to break, but something did. And while the sprinklers and garage door not working are an inconvenience, who knows what trouble was avoided. The garage could have burned down. Who knows? Whatever the case, that small circuit-breaker forced everything to stop.
What are the small circuit-breakers in your life? A sprained ankle? A cold? A migraine headache? What if God is using those small (Okay, none of those feel small. I know.) inconveniences to force your hand. What if these are his reminders to stop and rest?
We all want to get on the other side of suffering, but what if some of our suffering is God’s way of forcing us to lie down? Remember Psalm 23? “He MAKES me lie down in green pastures.” A good shepherd may not coax his sheep to lie down. He might have to make the sheep lie down. I know that God has had to force me to lie down. I don’t lie down easily. There’s too much to do.
The next time you get hit with a headache, remind yourself to be thankful for the opportunity to slow down. These griefs are sobering reminders of our limitations. They press us into our Maker’s arms.
Maggie Jackson, in her book Distraction wrote, “Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies and the wondrous potential of our scientific gains, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, sensory detachment. In this new world, something is amiss. And that something is attention.”
While some cognitive neuroscientists believe that attention is an organ system, like our respiratory system, we at least know that attention is the basic organizational power of our lives. Attention is, continues Jackson, “key not only to higher forms of thinking but to our morality and even our very happiness…in a world of information overload, we need brevity and distillation…We are adapting to a new world, but in doing so are we redefining ‘smart’ to mostly mean twitch speed, multitasking, and bullet points?…How do we keep from getting lost in these mercurial and diffuse realms, where time for reflection and focus is increasingly lost as a valued part of life?”
I write this as one who has discovered rather late in life that I am the victim of my own distracted habits. Having suffered migraine headaches for many years due to various stresses, I blamed them on chemistry or biology forgetting that the mind, body, and emotions are all inextricably connected. These migraine headaches increased in frequency and intensity until they culminated in the great migraine attack of my life in January of 2008. The attack left me intellectually scrambled, disoriented, and physically immobile for some time.
My father’s counsel, coinciding with those of my dear friends and the great C.S. Lewis, was that God had used pain in my body as a megaphone and encouragement to slow down in life. Since I did not listen to those warnings, God had, in some respects, forced this rest upon me. During those weeks of immobility, I came to see my life and mind as analogous to fields for planting. Like an incompetent farmer, I had over planted the field and left it undernourished. Rather than rotating my crops and giving regions of my mind and life opportunity to rest, I developed those overly-busy habits of life so common amongst evangelical Christians. O, sure, I pretended that those few minutes driving hither and yon with music playing were sufficient moments of reflection, but they were nothing more than a continuation of that stream of distraction that had come to define my life.
Attention acts as a plow to loosen the soil of the mind and prepare it to receive the seed that is planted there. Split-attention and hyper-productivity, my dominant habits of life, would be akin to a farmer who skips his plow along the surface of the soil and then throws his seed as quickly as possible: not an effective farming method and certainly not effective for developing a reflective lifestyle. Effective intellectual farming is a more patient process requiring attention so that when the seed is planted, whatever that seed might be, then contemplation can water and nourish the seed.
I believe that the development of a contemplative life is a Christian obligation and I suspect that it will take the rest of my life to unwind the cords of busyness and distraction that so entangle me. The body tremors, sudden onset of fatigue, and idiopathic Narcolepsy that developed in the year following that migraine attack might very well have biological causes, but I am certain of one thing: a split-attention lifestyle combined with hyper-productivity have undermined my intellectual, physical, and spiritual clarity. I am not alone in this, I am sure.
Maggie Jackson’s questions are poignantly relevant and her comment that “we are becoming a nation of the untethered” is spot on. Like water spiders, we skim on the surface of life, unable to taste deeply, incapable of substantial self-reflection, and absolutely satisfied with surface observations. We have either forgotten or ignored the fact that wisdom does not sink her roots into the soil of distraction.
If we want wisdom, which is the first goal of every Christian reader, then we must be people of attention. The Latin mother of our word “attention” is the word attendere: literally to stretch toward. Being so well trained for a lifestyle of distraction, we have difficulty stretching our minds toward anything for any significant length of time and this inability has social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual consequences.
The current intellectual skill set amongst many of the next generation is more akin to skimming, to data selection, than to anything like rumination. One can hardly blame them for this tendency since we have built the world that has raised them and gave them suck, but it seems altogether strange that so few are willing to question the rudimentary shape of modern society itself. The social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual consequences should come as no surprise.
We are so wired for sound, so primed to pursue the latest novelty, that we gutted our modern lives of any opportunity to ruminate quietly, to practice attentiveness. Not only have we removed such possibility, but we have actively filled the spaces that were left from the removal with objects or activities that force either multi-tasking or abandoned intellectual myopia. The explosion of technological capabilities that have aided in this elimination of rumination have perhaps intoxicated our humanistic longings so much so that while we know that we can, nobody is asking whether we should.
We have all assumed that more data at our fingertips is a good thing without counting the cost of such an unending stream of information. The written word today is far less “fraught with meaning and deeply embedded in our psyches, than the transparent carryall of burgeoning info-bits” (ibid). These info-bits and lightning access to any given piece of data has given us the illusion of knowledge, but this is not actual knowledge.
Actual knowledge is acquired only by intellectual chewing, rumination or contemplation, by stretching one’s mind toward a given thing. Contemplation is especially necessary for the act of reading because it allows for the reader to ingest the text rather than skim along its surface.
Practiced contemplation, therefore, bridges the gap between the higher things found in reading and our own inadequacy and fickleness. Attention and contemplation are necessary tools for the Christian who desires to remain a cognizant and reflective observer of all God is teaching whether in nature or in literature.