Rebuked by a Smile: Children and the Lessons They Teach Us

Life gets busy.  This is a fundamental reality for many of us.  Indeed, many of us make our lives too busy.  I was reminded of this when I read a recent USA Today piece on the actress Tina Fey, whose comedic work I generally enjoy.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“How Fey balances what now amounts to two jobs, plus marriage and motherhood, and writing an upcoming humor non-fiction book, is a question none of her co-stars or friends can answer. Friend and fellow SNL-er Amy Poehler attributes it to “cloning and time travel.”

30 Rock writer Robert Carlock says, “It’s kind of unprecedented what she’s trying to pull off. I guess she doesn’t sleep? She has those early calls and works all day. She runs out and gets her kid from school and runs back for the next shot. She does do it all.”

Jack McBrayer, who plays perky Kenneth the page, calls her a workhorse. “Yesterday, she had to do several scenes, do a taped episode of Letterman and go back to writing the next episode. She doesn’t stop.”

Those who read this blog will know my stance on gender roles and the balance of work and motherhood.  That is not the issue I’m interested in after reading this particular piece.  Rather, I’m concerned with Fey’s drive to produce work.  What, exactly, prompts a person to work full-time for Saturday Night Live, full-time for 30 Rock, and then take up the duties of wife and mother?  All this between tapings of Letterman.  (Though I must say, I’ve always found him remarkably accommodating to my schedule.)

Many of us know people like Tina Fey.  Actually, many of us Americans are naturally oriented to Fey’s frenetic pace.  Living in a market-driven world consumed with the bottom line, we have adopted habits that, quite simply, are not healthy.  I’m not referring to work that we need to do.  There are seasons of life that can be very demanding, and there’s no other solution but to work, and to work hard.

But many of us also desire and embrace a way of life that is detrimental to our physical, psychological and spiritual health.  And–here is the $64,000 question–for what?  For what, exactly?  Why are we so driven?  What does it all accomplish?  Or, to ask a better question, what does our next little bit of accomplishment cause us to sacrifice in other areas?

I am both saddened and challenged by the Fey article.  I can see a similar ambitiousness in my own heart, and I must admit that I am repulsed by it.  A good helping of ambition is no bad thing, of course, and many of us could use more of it.  When carried by the right motives, God often blesses it, as the Bible and church history make clear (see numerous texts from Proverbs like 6:6 and Matthew 25:14-30 and the examples of men like Whitefield and Wesley).  Yet our ambitiousness can often blend with naked selfishness and create a pattern of life that is about the advancement of the kingdom of God, yes, but is also about the advancement of the kingdom of self.  I’ve found this particularly true in the academic realm.  In the same way that consumer capitalism can reward greed, the academic world can reward selfishness.  One is measured in large part by one’s publishing, and so if one works hard to publish, one may well be lavishly rewarded.  But much of this endeavor can be fueled as much by selfishness and pure ambition as by gospel concerns.

I was reminded of all of this in a potent way when I sat my daughter on my lap this past weekend.  The house was quiet, the chores were done, and I was free to enjoy some time with my daughter.  As we sat together, Ella Rose smiled at me.  She melted me with her first smile, but then she did it again.  This process repeated itself for quite some time before she fell into a contented sleep.  As she slept, I found myself quite stirred by the past few minutes.  I was rebuked by my daughter’s smile.  In those sweet moments, I was rebuked for my pride, my selfishness, my naked ambition, and for the harm that these sins of my heart could wreak on my little girl.

In these first days of her life, my wife and I are everything to Ella.  We are her world.  Yet it is quite possible for me in coming days to emulate the pattern of many driven people, Christian or otherwise, and to fade out of her life, swept away by a schedule of my choosing that involves considerable time away from home.  One wants to scrupulously avoid sweeping generalization, and thus to leave a significant place for a busy life lived to the glory of God, but one also wants to be aware of a temptation common to man.  It is easy to drift away from our families, friends, and churches, and to lose ourselves in a world made by ambition and selfish bent.  I can see this in myself, I can see it in others, and I am determined to fight it.

I know that I will lead a busy life even if I am a balanced person.  Many–most–of us will.  But this does not excuse us from the need to love our families and to give them great chunks of our time, to regularly sacrifice for them.  If we do not do so, perhaps the Lord will rebuke us.  It may not be through a resounding sermon or a sharp argument, though.  It may be through a baby’s sweet smile, a laugh that echoes in our ears, a moment that goes as swiftly as it comes.

  • theophilogue

    Owen,

    This is a powerful piece. You are one of the most productive persons I know, so I could imagine how you might have felt by the rebuke of your daughters smile.

    I wish you would write a post about how to know whether or not you are doing to much.

    You could even make it comical.

    You might be to ambitious if …

    Anyway, your post if relevant I think to a lot of people.

    Bradley


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