Stop, Reflect, Act
Personal acts of piety and devotion are vital to a vibrant spiritual life and continued spiritual formation. But all too often "working on my relationship with God" has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being.... The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. Much of this activity can actually distract one from becoming a more decent human being. In fact, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories. Richard Beck of Experimental Theology
In a later post Beck wrote, "I don't think most Christians are jerks. Rather, I think Christians tend to behave like jerks due to failures of attention. I just don't think Christians are mindful enough."
He continued with this ‘not your normal theological illustration.'
If you've ever been in a men's restroom you know that men tend to be pretty careless when it comes to aiming properly at a urinal or toilet. This lack of care and attention is exacerbated in public toilets where you don't have to clean up your own mess. Consequently, many public bathrooms are filthy. Well, a few years back the authorities at the Amsterdam airport had a wonderful idea for this problem. They etched a small fly in each urinal. ... The presence of this fly focuses the attention and men just naturally aim at it. In studies done by the airport, the fly urinal reduced spillage by 80%.
His point? Our behavior is a product of our attention. We may affirm certain beliefs, but unless we attend to them, they mean nothing. If we are not attentive, we will make a mess of life.
Is this illustration needlessly uncouth?
And before dismissing the urinal example too quickly I'd like to note that using a public urinal is a moral act. Your actions affect those sharing the space and those who have to clean up your waste. The Golden Rule should be operative. Again, building off of my last post, few Christians think going to the loo is a spiritual act, but it is.
How many of us "good" people speed "a bit", or drop little bits of litter?
It won't matter, will it? It's not like it's really important... like it's not my tax return. Well... yeah... ok... but it's pretty much legit... I mean, I've got receipts for most of it...
Being attentive in the little things is surely practice for the big things. Beck is totally correct: going to the loo is a spiritual act. Using a public urinal is a moral act.
Part of the inattentiveness problem, is busyness.. We are often too busy, too fast, too focused to pay attention to things that, ultimately, are quite important. Not cleaning up a toilet seat, or just creeping over the speed limit, may not seem much, but they are indicators of our true regard for other people. They betray our real moral character. Being too busy to treat the checkout girl as human, and being rude and impatient, takes us from compassionate to jerk; a denial of our calling and faith.
Busyness is a cloak for something else; what Beck and David Foster Wallace, whom he quotes, call our "default setting." Our default setting is the conviction that we are at the centre of the universe. It all revolves around us. (Read Wallace; it is a brilliant and tragic essay.) Wallace described the task of life as "my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered... " If we do not see this point, then even being attentive can become another form of self absorption!
Wallace wrote for all of us when he said
The point is that petty, frustrating crap... is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I've worked really hard all day and I'm starved and tired and I can't even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid g-d- people.
I think "pissed and miserable" is a contagion that spreads much wider than the shopping Wallace used for his example. The infection that can spread across all our life. Being fully human, experiencing life in all its fullness, as Jesus says in John's Gospel (10:10), involves getting out of the default setting. It involves choosing to live in a different way. Wallace's essay is pure New Testament. If we find what he says offensive or new, we have not been paying attention to the source documents of our faith!
Stop and Balance
This all needs balance. Attentiveness can drift back into that self absorbed life which is all about us. Our compassion and good works can become a vehicle for self-aggrandisement. Alternatively, compassion can degenerate into duty. Uncompassionate to our selves, we can be consumed by duty to too many competing calls upon us. This way lies burn out and break down. We need to stop. We need to work to eat. Yet without some busyness and focus, we lose our way and become lazy. How do we live this balance?
Our self: Stop and reflect
I write about this as an expert at dojng the wrong thing! Too often, I focus on one thing to the exclusion of all others. I am the nerd who realizes he has not been outside for days. I have found I need a discipline that works for my particular form of the default setting. Attentiveness is a key issue. We need to stop and reflect. But what is our own particular angle on all this? Are we an extrovert who needs to discipline ourselves to spend time away from people, being quiet? Are we the extrovert who needs the discipline of people, and getting outside of ourselves? Part of our attentiveness is to become aware of ourselves.
We are not time poor. In our rich western culture, most of us choose to be time poor. We have the same amount of time as our grandparents. Usually, we have more time; we live longer!
How much time extra time do we spend earning a higher income, to buy more time saving devices, which gain us no more time? How much added stress do we undergo for no profit? My friend drives 80 kilometres a day (each way) to get to work. I ride my pushbike 30 kilometers. He gets to work only 10 minutes earlier than I do. His benefit is only an extra $300.00 each week. He works longer hours. He gets no exercise. He must stay alert in high speed traffic. His car costs are enormous. After the cost of work is paid, I have more money. I am healthier. I have most of my ride to think. I can be attentive. Even in those frustrating supermarket lines, I am less stressed, and more able to listen, and see and be.
Despite my default setting, I want to be attentive. I want to see what really is. Getting off the treadmill makes the space for this, and provides the energy for it.
Reflection on why
Attentiveness needs a certain purpose and content. If we merely watch what goes by, we are like an unreflective viewer of TV, half asleep on the couch. We are diverted and entertained, and drift back to our default settings. After reclaiming my time, I have sought to inform and direct my attentiveness with the content of the Christian tradition. I pray the Daily Office. It is my first task before I sit at my desk each day. (As clergy it is also our first job of the day, not an extra for our spare time.)
Even if we are not adherents to a religion, the same principle applies. What informs who we are? In the broadest sense, what do we worship? What is most important for us? Perhaps our Daily Office is to read the poems of Wordsworth. Can we see that if our daily ritual is coffee and The Financial Review, we are also making a statement about worth, and what is most important- and being shaped by these things?
And then we act. This is why Richard Beck's urinal story is so important. Real worship and devotion, and true attentiveness, begin at the most basic level. If we are not attentive in a public toilet, and if we are aggressive on the road, or rude on the footpath, it is there we are betraying just how little we have escaped our default setting. Below my window an ambulance, with full lights and sirens, has been forced to stop by pedestrians who simply didn't pay attention. Given all its noise and visibility, it can only be that they did not care. How will we act?
David Foster Wallace said, "It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out." That's true. But there is also good news. Habitual attentiveness informed by a worthy tradition converts us. It guides us out of the default. We constantly need to weed the garden of our lives, and always will, but the soil becomes richer. Life becomes more free. And the attentiveness lets us see joy.