Now Featured at the Patheos Book Club
Living Into Focus
Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions

By Arthur Boers

Book Excerpt: Introduction

The stress of seventh grade started me sleepwalking. Staying balanced in life has been a challenge ever since.

More than once my parents, reading or watching TV hours after I had gone to bed, looked up to find a barefooted twelve-year-old with pillow-mussed hair heading determinedly toward the back door in search of something outside. They got up, caught me by the arm, argued with me, turned me around, and insisted I return to bed. The next morning I would invariably recall a frustrated nightmare of my parents not allowing me to go where I knew that I urgently must.

When we consulted our family physician, he said my nocturnal strolling was likely a sign of stress. But, really, seventh-grade stress?

I had that year transferred from a private church school to a public junior high. The new school divided the seventh grade into sections—7-1,7-2, 7-3—and it was no secret that these were academic distinctions. Administrators, unsure how to interpret my private school grades, took the middle road and placed me in 7-2.

I was unhappy. I wanted to be recognized as an academic achiever, and, besides, my best friend was in 7-1. I strove and studied all semester with the hope of being promoted. I worked hard every day. I prepared for everything, even the simplest spelling test. I did hours of homework each evening and on Saturdays. Thank goodness my strict Calvinist family forbade homework on Sundays, or I would never have known any break at all.

Stress has been my steady companion ever since. Along the way people have called me "workaholic" and "Type A." I am a responsible oldest child, firmly raised in a Protestant work ethic, son of a businessman and employer who expected employees to give their all. I took seriously all those hard-earned lessons that grandparents and parents told me about the challenges of living through the deprivations of the Depression, scarcities in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and hardships of immigration to Canada with nothing but a trunk of possessions to call one's own. Not surprisingly, I have also struggled along the way with melancholy, depression, exhaustion, and occasional burnout.

Yet such strains are no longer the domain for driven overachievers alone. Our culture has a prevailing sense of being too busy, having too much to do, without enough time for things that matter and priorities that really count. Feeling worried and burdened is an unhappy reality that many of us experience, and we encounter it unrelentingly. Stressing out in seventh grade may have made me an oddball; but I'm not alone anymore.

I meet a lot of folks who are unhappy, stressed, depressed, eating poorly, and not getting enough exercise. Some weeks I feel that at least half the people who are important to me—friends and family alike—are on various medications, just to cope with life's daily realities. And this in a culture that boasts of being the most affluent and most knowledgeable in the history of the world. The simple fact, as philosopher Albert Borgmann reminds us, is "that people regularly make choices that are counterproductive to the happiness they want."1 Study after study shows that numerous daily realities contribute to declining happiness and growing depression: