We seek retreats for ourselves in country places, on beaches and mountains . . . but that is altogether unenlightened when it is possible at any hour you please to find a retreat within yourself. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Most people think of Advent within a religious context, the annual month-long season of introspection, inwardness, quietness, and hope that anticipates the nativity and the Incarnation. But there is secular value to Advent as well, particularly in the middle of pre-Christmas insanity surrounding shopping, food, and travel. This is particularly true for those of us who live the academic life, which has a liturgical calendar of its own. Once Fall semester final grades are in, usually in the middle of December, there are a few days available–if one remembers to use them–to take a deep breath, take stock, and reboot before diving into both the holidays and thinking about the Spring semester that looms just a month away. Advent–whether religious or secular–is for retooling.
There are many modern conveniences that Jeanne and I could at least try to do without for a while. For instance, over a year ago our more-than-twenty-year-old dishwasher finally decided to give up the ghost. It was brand new we moved into the house in May 1996. We had been expecting it to croak for a while (a few features had stopped working months before), but it was still a bit of a shock to push the “start” button and have nothing happen. So I bought a cheap dish drainer at Walmart and we decided to see how long we could go old school without a dishwasher. We made it for almost a year. Our new dishwasher is a welcome addition, but we established that we could live, at least for a while, without one.
But there are some things we absolutely cannot do without. Our Verizon FIOS cable/wireless service is one of them. We watch a lot of television (only the good stuff, of course) and often are not able to watch our favorite shows at their normal air time. Hence the importance of a working and reliable On Demand service. This service is particularly important to help us navigate Sunday evenings when at least two and sometimes three of our favorite shows are on either at the same or at overlapping times.
On mercifully rare occasions, this indispensable part of our daily lives has failed to behave properly. The most recent time, it went like this: Every time we watched something “On Demand,” about twenty minutes into the show we get a blank screen. After fifteen seconds that felt like an hour, the show either picked up where it left off or kicked us back to a previous screen where we have to click “Resume program” to start watching again. Repeat this process every twenty minutes—very annoying and inconvenient. Imagine having to waste fifteen seconds of our valuable television viewing time doing nothing.
Then the problem escalated as we tried to watch an On Demand movie, the blank screen appeared once again. After the allotted fifteen seconds this time, though, a message from the FIOS authorities came up on the screen. The message said something along the lines of “we are trying to get you back to your program, but are unable to do so at the present time. Please try again later. Should this problem persist, we suggest that you reboot your router and/or your cable box.”
This made a certain amount of sense to me, since I have known for a long time that ninety percent of all computer problems can be solved by shutting one’s computer down, letting it rest while one gets a beer or a scotch, then starting it up again. Furthermore, whenever I have called Verizon for help with wireless issues, the person in India who I get after a half hour of muzak always starts addressing my issue by asking “have you rebooted the router?” I rebooted the router, which did not solve the problem, then the box, which did solve the problem.
How many things that you “cannot do without” could you actually do without? This has all the earmarks of a “first-world” question, but it’s one that the ancient Stoics regularly urged anyone who would listen to consider carefully. The Stoics claimed that our natural human tendency is to rely on external things, things outside our control, to dictate the quality of our lives to us, even though the only true source of control over and value in our lives is to be found internally. In various letters to a friend’s son, Roman senator and Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested a regular practice that might help to establish what is necessary and what is a luxury.
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself all the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.
Seneca, of course, is referring to a lot more than living without a dishwasher or television on demand—he’s suggesting that each of us regularly practice denying ourselves what we believe to be essential in order to discover what is truly essential. But each of us has to begin somewhere.
I don’t know why rebooting one’s computer or router works more often than not—such technical details are way above my pay grade. As a non-technical person, I imagine that over time the device in question has been overworked, various small things have gone awry, and the down time involved with a reboot allows such askew items to realign and refocus. Talk about anthropomorphism—this is worse than projecting my thoughts and feelings into my dachshund’s tiny brain. But I do know from experience that the human equivalent to rebooting is a necessary component in my life—and I suspect I am not alone in this.
We tend to treat ourselves like appliances, indispensable items whose energies we take for granted. Just like our dishwasher and cable service, eventually neglect, overuse, and the simple passage of time will reap unwanted rewards. What it means to reboot and retool will be as individual as people are different from each other. But create a space in each day, or at least in each week, in which you deliberately step outside yourself and take a look. Do a virtual reboot and shut yourself down for a few minutes. Ask yourself: How did this day, this week, fit with what I know to be my best self? What loose ends need to be gathered together? What frayed ends need to be trimmed off? As the Benedictine prayer recommends, experience the fertility of silence. You are worth the time—because you are indispensable.