How to Squeeze More Juice from the Orange That is Life

Life
Paul Bodea via freeimages.com

The essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider has a great riff on how we seem to pride ourselves on our “busy” lives. Tim points out that while this busyness makes us feel important, there’s also a huge downside to our nonstop activity—it takes away from our ability to be lazy.

Now, one man’s lazy is another man’s downtime, and Kreider is no slouch. He’s an accomplished author, who writes and draws at least 5 hours a day before indulging in more leisurely pursuits. He refers to this downtime as a necessity, because when we’re idle it allows us to step back, survey the world and figure things out before moving on to our next order of busy-ness.

There’s just one problem for many of us: As much as we’d like to, we don’t have time to be lazy. We’re busy with kids, a never-ending series of “to do” lists and time-eating 40-hour-plus-a-week jobs. So how do we squeeze more juice out of our busy lives? How do we live a more fully engaged and spiritual life, when our hectic schedule is always threatening to overwhelm us?

If you can’t escape the busyness, try stopping or slowing the clock.

 If it feels like your life is going by in a blur, it may be time to reset your internal clock. The Catholic Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has a phrase he uses each morning upon awakening: This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before. This very act has a way of pointing out that no day is the same; each one is new and deserves our rapt attention.

Steindl-Rast also has advice on how we should look at the day ahead, being grateful for each moment, even the ones we might normally see as busy-work. It’s a 3-step process, called Stop-Look-Go and it works like this. When you find yourself not tuned-in to your actions or surroundings:

  1. Stop what you’re doing, freeze in place for a moment.
  2. Look around you, be fully present with your sight, your ears, your touch.
  3. Go ahead with your activity but do it alert and aware of each move you make.

We only live in one space: the present. It is important to live where we are at this very moment as fully as we can. ~Ivon Prefontaine

What’s it like to live fully in the moment? An example comes in James Martin’s book Becoming Who You Are. Martin tells the story of the writer Andres Dubus and his reflections on encountering the holy in his daily life. It starts innocently enough when Dubus is making lunch for his children one morning before school, what most of us see as a chore. He sensed that there was more to his actions than he realized:

Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments.

Finding the sacred in sandwich-making is a hint as to how we might look at many of our “I’m busy” activities. Might giving your kid a ride be a chance for conversation and bonding? Might washing the dishes be an opportunity to engage in silent prayer or meditation? Might even the dullest workplace be a chance to notice and connect with those around you?

Much like Dubus, in his groundbreaking book A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore talks of consciously engaging in sacraments in our everyday lives. He tells us that Henry David Thoreau believed that “just getting up early can be a sacrament, a spiritual act.” Moore advises us to plan for these moments each day, tacking them on to our regular schedule:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule…set up a few regular activities, like meditation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after ten p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quite walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.  

Tim Kreider offers this sage piece of advice: Choose time over money, for our best investment is in spending time with those we love. And who can argue with the notion of choosing downtime over work, especially when it involves being with those closest to us. (As the story goes, no one has ever been on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.)

If you, like me, can’t escape a long workweek and have a ton of obligations outside of the office to boot, there’s just one option. Start getting more out of each moment, being mindful of each step and each action you take. We are best served by remembering the wise words of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam:

Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.

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