Friday, January 08, 2010

Sermon: "Where Does All the Time Go?" (Delivered 1-3-10)

The 3C Theme of this sermon is: Challenge - To challenge those aspects of our culture and society that diminish human life. Click here for more information.

An old proverb tells us that a stitch in time saves nine. But, who has the time to make a stitch. Sometimes I wonder, “Well, if I only have time to make half of a stitch, can that still save me four and a half?”

Ben Franklin famously advised never to put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today. It is sound advice, but it sounds a little bit dated in our fast-paced, “I need it by yesterday,” society.

The truth of the matter is that we live in a culture of busy-ness. I bet that you can relate to some of what I am about to say. I trust that I am not just preaching to myself. It seems to me that many of us find ourselves lamenting that there are just not enough hours in the day. We find ourselves feeling swamped. We find ourselves living at a pace that we recognize is not sustainable. We find ourselves looking ahead at future deadlines and we find ourselves saying things like, “If I can just get through next week...” and, “Things will calm down in a month, once I get some of these things off my plate.”

In everyday polite conversation it is normal to be far more forthcoming about stress from time pressures than most of us normally would be about other challenges. You know the polite exchange. The question: “How are you doing?” The response: “Fine.”

I have noticed that it is socially acceptable to answer this polite question with the response, “I’m really busy these days.” It is socially acceptable to say, “My schedule has been out of control.” “I’ve got a lot going on.” It is interesting that we feel at liberty to talk about how we feel pressed for time while other subjects are taboo.

When we ask an acquaintance how they are, there are answers that we almost never receive: “I’ve been really concerned with how much I’ve been drinking.” “The collection agencies have been beating down my door.” “I’ve been really wondering whether there is a point to life.”

If anybody tossed one of these comments out in polite conversation, we would be shocked, even worried. But, it is acceptable to make chit-chat about being under a lot of stress, feeling strapped for time, and being insanely busy. Come to think of it, being insanely busy is probably the most socially acceptable form of self-declared insanity.

To put it more plainly: There is shame in sharing, at least in making small talk, that our lives are out of balance in terms of addictions, finances, or emotions. We don’t talk about being out of balance psychologically or spiritually. But, there is no shame in mentioning that we are out of control with how we use our time. In fact, it may be the opposite of shame. It may be a source of pride and even competition.

Talking about how busy we are can become a kind of bragging. I am reminded of an old joke from college: “How long did it take you to write that term paper? Well, that depends. Do I get to count the hours I spent in library lobby complaining about having to write the paper?” Boasting about living a hectic life can reinforce for us the sense that what we are doing in life is important and significant. We want to say that we have a lot on our plates. We fear what it would mean not to be busy.

So, here we are. We have already used up 58 hours of this brand new year. This morning I want to challenge the aspect of our culture that tells us that we must be busy at all times and that being too busy, to the point of damaging our lives, is something to be proud of. I want to challenge the notion of whether it has to be this way. I want to talk about the cost of living this way for I believe that there is a significant cost, a high price that we pay for living this way. Is this just the way things are? Or, is a different way of life possible?

There are a couple of sayings by Ralph Waldo Emerson that inform us of an alternative vision to the life that I have just described. Emerson said, "Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods." A second quote, "The days come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."

What if these words declare an alternative possibility for how our lives might be? Emerson tells us that each day is a god, or at least a gift from the gods, but that we often do not recognize the gift of the day. That each day is a holy gift is a truth that is veiled and hidden. The days are gods, each bearing gifts according to our ability to receive them and we often fail to be receptive to the gift of the day.

There is a belief that I used to hold that I don’t believe anymore. I used to believe that while we as human beings will never have the time to do all the things we would hope to do, people tend to choose to do what is important to them. I used to believe that, generally speaking, it was possible to look at how a person spends his or her time and deduce the person’s values. Now I don’t believe this anymore. I believe that it is possible to completely lose track of one’s true self, to forget who and whose you truly are, and to succumb to forces in our culture that distort the truth and diminish life.

An extreme example is found in the writings of John Gottman, one of the foremost experts on the psychology of relationships, who shares the true story of a family he worked with. The family consisted of a husband, wife, and two children. The husband was a very successful and highly regarded doctor. He was also a workaholic. The problems in his relationship with his wife and children came to a head when he spent another Christmas at the hospital. She packed up dinner and the children and took them for a Christmas picnic dinner in a waiting room at the hospital and had him paged to join them. When the husband and wife entered into therapy to address his addiction to work it was revealed that he didn’t even know the name of the family dog. Again, a true story.

Now, I suppose you could look at the doctor, look at how he budgeted his time between work and family, and conclude that his wife, his children, and even the family dog were just not a major priority in this man’s life. To me it seems more plausible, and more generous, to say that this man’s life at some point fell out of balance and continued to slide, bit by bit, even further off of the path.

I would guess that just about everyone in the room knows the name of the family dog, or whatever the equivalent is in your particular family. But, I would also guess that many of us feel that the life that we lead is sometimes unbalanced, that many of us feel as though there are not enough hours in the day, and that many of us feel that we are constantly under time pressure. Is this the way it has to be? Or, can we choose another way?

Let’s assume this is not the way it has to be. Let’s assume we can choose another way. How might we do this? I want to start out with a basic suggestion and then move on to other thoughts. The first thing I might suggest is to create a time budget. Budgets are something with which we are probably familiar from our own finances, or at least we understand the concept. Since time is money, as the old saying goes, why can’t we do the same with our time? There are 168 hours in the week. We spend in the neighborhood of 120 of those hours awake. I invite you to create your dream budget of how you would like to spend those hours. How many of those hours will be spent at work? With family? In study or pursuing personal enrichment? Exercise? Volunteering? How many hours will be spent involved in church activities or in the enrichment and expression of your faith? How about hobbies? Socializing? Now estimate how many of those hours will be spent on grooming and hygiene, shopping, commuting, and eating. Finally, ask yourself how many hours you plan to spend in front of a television, surfing aimlessly on the web, or trying to master a video game. So, you’ve created your time budget. After you do this, I challenge you to spend a few weeks carefully tracking how you spend the hours and the minutes of each day. Finally, it is time for the reality check. Compare your dream time budget with your actual one and ask yourself, “Where does all the time go?” [A much extended version of this idea, including next steps, is found in the book Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.]

I am going to guess that if we peered really deeply into the time budgets of some of the busiest people we might find something curious. Hours spent aimlessly surfing the net. A brainless time-sucking computer game. Channel flipping. This would seem to be an irony but I contend that it is not. Mindless zoning out is related to living a high-stress, constantly on the go lifestyle. People zone out not because they are lazy, but rather for the opposite reason. Because it dulls a taxed brain and quiets a stressed-out body. Productive, constructive hobbies and interests demand something that most people can’t give after they clock out. [I’ve adapted this idea from the chapter on “Sloth” in Dan Savage’s Skipping Towards Gomorrah.]

Studies show that Americans who are fortunate enough to have paid vacation tend not to use their full allotment of vacation time. Studies show we spend a whole lot of time acting like zombies in front of screens. I believe these two facts are not contradictory. Zoning out can be a stop-gap measure for those who do not take the time to recharge.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped, “What would be the use of immortality to the person who cannot use well a half an hour?” A former supervisor of mine once told me, “Thom, ministers are not allowed to have busy lives, but they should have full lives.” Intellectually, theoretically, I understand what he meant by these words. In our heads we understand the difference between living busily and living fully. But in practice it is so much more difficult. The gifts of the day come muffled and veiled. It can be hard to know whether our lives are full or busy.

And there are things we lose out on. Our bodies deserve better than what we give them. Commitments to a never-ceasing variety of activities cut into family unity. To have a developed religious life requires more than an hour every week, significantly more. Putting our brains into zombie mode for a few hours is a palliative measure; it may help us go back and face the grind but it is not life enhancing.

But, I am convinced that we need not live this way. I am convinced that we can live against the grain of our culture. Next time you feel tempted to say how busy you are, ask yourself, “Am I using this time well? Do my days feel like gifts from the Gods?”

Is it possible to live otherwise? Can we resist forces in our culture that threaten to pull us out of balance? I believe we can resist and that resistance is not futile. I’ve suggested a first step, the creation of a time budget and an analysis of where your time actually goes, a fearless temporal inventory if you will. However, I’ve also given you a caution. The remedy may not be as easy as resolving to become more efficient or to waste less time. Our approach to time should not consist of periods of manic sprinting followed by doubling over with exhaustion. It may require from us the courage both to drastically reshape pieces of our lives that pull us out of balance and to spend more time on areas that we tend to neglect.

I want to close by describing the cover to the Winter edition of the UU World magazine. Its cover features a vaguely impressionist oil painting. At first glance it seemed like the room was a cathedral with figures focusing their gaze on some holy of holies glowing brightly in the center of the room. If you look at the credits, you find that the painting is of the concourse at Grand Central Station in New York City. The glowing holy of holies is the iconic clock. In this merging of spiritual and secular imagery can there be any doubt that Emerson knew the truth: "Heaven walks among us ordinarily muffled in such triple or tenfold disguises that the wisest are deceived and no one suspects the days to be gods."