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Time and Spirit: Today's Dilemma
By Cecile Andrews

EarthLight #41 -- Spring 2001


Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? 
This is what we mean by the term spiritual:. It is the ecstatic force that stirs all our goals,.When we perceive it, it is as if our mind were gliding for a while with an eternal current."
-Abraham Heschel
There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist... most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by the multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence... It destroys the fruitfulness of one's own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.  

-Thomas Merton


I received one of those emails the other day that you assume is just an urban legend. But the source seems to be the Birmingham Sunday Mercury in a story they ran January 7th. It's a story about an employee who had been dead at his desk for five days before anyone noticed. 

Apparently the 51-year-old man died of a heart attack while he was proofreading at a publishing house where he'd worked for thirty years. He died on a Monday but it appears that no one noticed until an office cleaner asked why he was working on a Saturday.

His boss said that George was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn't say anything.

Well I'd say that this story says it all. This is what all our work can come to. No one notices. 

And in fact, our American preoccupation with productivity and doing more means that none of us notices much of anything. We don't notice our kids growing up; we don't notice that a friend is having trouble in her marriage; we don't notice that our lives are rushing by. We're too busy.

What have we done with our time? Americans seem like a massive herd running at top speed for a cliff. We know it's crazy, but we can't seem to shift our course. How did the most powerful country in the world lose control of its time? 

And lose control we have. The word I most often hear on people's lips is busy. "Oh, I'm so busy!" "I'm just too busy." But what is the truth here? One woman said she was concerned about her mother who claimed to be so busy. The mother watches three soap operas a day and spends most of her time at the mall. Another woman was beginning a new job and people told her to always say no when anyone asked her to do anything and to tell them she was too busy. Do we really have too much to do or is it just a state of mind? Do we like feeling frantic and busy so we don't have to stop and think, so we don't have to notice how anxious we feel? Or are we addicted to our own adrenaline and feel uncomfortable if we're not hyped up with pressure. Maybe we confuse feeling hyped up with feeling alive.

But it's not just that we don't have any time. It seems that we're spending it on things that don't matter, that aren't important. Thoreau said, "I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear." How many things are we involved in that are "not life," activities that are deadening, that wither the spirit. The many endless meetings at work where no one speaks truthfully or with depth? The hours on the freeway cooped up in a piece of metal hurtling through space? Killing ourselves with fast foods? Surely these classify as "not life;" certainly they are an incredible waste of time.

But how can you change your experience of time? I don't know if we can do it alone-the forces of the culture are just too great. I was in a copy center one day and noticed a big poster on the wall that said, "Do More!" I looked around, wondering whom they were addressing? Me? The employees? Then I realized that this is the true American creed. Doing more is what we're concerned with-not life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.

And it's because time has become money. Whenever affluence rises in a country, people always have less time for things that don't bring in money-time with friends and family, time to just hang out.

South African writer Breyten Breytenbach said that "Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable." We fail to realize that the fact that teenage suicide has tripled since the Sixties is unacceptable. That teenage shootings are unacceptable. And that these things are happening in a "booming" economy. Our threshold of "normality" just keeps rising. We're simply too busy to notice. We're simply too busy to notice that no one should live the way we're living.

But that's what happens when you're working more than any industrialized country in the world-you have no time to reflect and ponder your life. And it's not just that you're spending all your hours at work and having a good time when you get home. In fact, the longer hours people work, the more TV they watch. It's all they are capable of doing. 

And the quality of our daily interactions with others means that after work people just want to escape. All that competing, all that pretending, all that energy spent shouting profanities at the person in the car in front of you. Well, we manage to make it to the mall. People treat you nicely there. (Apparently people who are diagnosed as compulsive shoppers aren't in the mall for the stuff but for the attention they get from the sales people. Someone takes time with them.) 

It seems that we are suffering from what Robert Lifton, in his work on Hiroshima survivors, called "psychic numbing." We've lost our spirit. We aren't experiencing life with any depth. We can't experience depth and joy if we're always in a rush. Joy takes time. You have to notice it, you have to feel it. As Abraham Heschel says in his quote above, spirituality "is the ecstatic force that stirs all our goals." You can't experience ecstasy if you're frantic. 

But there is a growing movement addressing this time sickness. The Voluntary Simplicity movement. It's a movement that says we must stop and pay attention to how we're really living life. It's a movement that listens to Thoreau when he talked about his concern about the quality of his life-"and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

People are attracted to the Simplicity Movement for many reasons. Some are concerned about their debt and the simplicity movement helps them reign in their consumerism and save money. Others are concerned about the broader effects of consumerism because it's destroying the planet-using up all the resources, polluting the air, water, and soil. Many are concerned about the lack of community. Others are worried about the rampant greed that both destroys the environment and undermines social justice.

Whatever attracts people to this movement, it all comes back to time. We are not taking the time to really live. I think of the Simplicity Movement as "the examined life richly lived." It's about living consciously so that we can live more fully. It's about figuring out what is important and what matters. People need to take time alone to reflect, but they also need to reflect together. All over the country (and indeed in other parts of the world) people are coming together in simplicity study circles to reflect on how they can live more simply. They've taken the first step-committing their time to discover how to live with more depth.

But a lot of us think the idea of Simplicity is only for those shallow souls who spend all their time at the malls and in front of the TV sets. Or those corporate types Thoreau seems to refer to when he asks the question, Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? People like us are doing more important things-saving the world. But let me ask you something. Go back and read Thomas Merton's quote. He's pointing a finger at us. Then read Thoreau's words below. Are you able to experience the gratitude and fulfillment of a life of spirit that Thoreau describes? Is our frantic effort to save the world just one more way of destroying spirit?

I realize that Merton's words are meant for me until I can experience what Thoreau describes:

I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite-only a sense of existence. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs-is more elastic, starry, and immortal-that is your success.

Cecile Andrews is the author of The Circle of Simplicity (HarperCollins, 1997). She is a visiting scholar at Stanford and writes a column on Voluntary Simplicity for the Seattle Times.You can reach her at Cecile@simplicitycircles.com.

For more information on Simplicity Circles, go to www.simplicitycircles.com.

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