Aided by a couple of days off and a flat mobile phone (thanks to a lost battery charger), I have spent the last three days doing ‘nothing’. I am so used to being busy doing ‘something’ – writing an article, preparing a sermon, running a meeting, dreaming a new idea into being, writing emails, worrying about an unfinished task. But the last three days I have not done a single thing to advance a cause or complete a work task. Instead I have slept for longer than I have slept in a long time, watched multiple episodes of the West Wing, got choked up watching Undercover Boss Australia, played cricket with the family up on Mt Sugarfloaf, seen a movie, read a book, had coffee by the beach, and shared a drink at a local cafe with Sandy and the kids. Tonight we’re having a movie night. It took me some time to really relax, but it’s been glorious.
It’s a welcome respite from what has been a stressful few months, and a previous week that began with work-related lows in Sydney, finished with work-related highs in Melbourne, and between the lows and the highs left me emotionally spent.
I am reminded of the biblical injunction to “rest”:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Exodus 20
I find it difficult to rest. I have to discipline myself not to check and answer emails and to mentally tune out work tasks. I am, I suspect, a child of the permanently connected 24/7 era. The last three days have reminded me what a gift rest is. To me and to my family. It’s something I am looking forward to building more intentionally into my life.
Natalie Jean Wood died in her Surry Hills home sometime between 2003 and 2006. Her body lay undiscovered until July this year. For more than eight years no-one noticed she was gone, no-one missed her, no-one mourned her passing.
I wonder if the same thing could happen in my street. I live in suburban Australia. The village, a world where communities were small and neighbours shopped, socialised and worked together, is a dim memory. I barely know the people in my street. Yes, we say hello as we get into our cars to head off to work and wave again as we return home. From time to time we even stop for a chat. We know each other well enough that if an emergency hit, we could ask each other for help. But that’s about the extent of it. Our communities, the places of our real friendship and engagement, lie beyond our street.
This disconnection with others with whom we share geography is driven home when I catch the train. I travel from Newcastle to Sydney four times a week. The trip is 2.25 hours each way. Yet we passengers sit side by side with barely a word passing between us, working on our laptops, watching movies on our ipads, or updating facebook on our phones. Most of the time the only people who want to talk are either drunk or mentally ill.
From time to time I feel nostalgic. I want to go back to the village. But I suspect that’s a forlorn hope and that I probably wouldn’t like it back there anyway. In the era of trains, planes and automobiles, mobile telephones, and always connected internet, our neighbourhoods have ceased to be local. Neither my church, my kids’ school, my workplace, my recreational pursuits, nor my good friends are within walking distance of my home. My sense of community comes from intentionally spending time with others, not from shared geography.
This has brought many gains, but it’s also brought loss. In a world of shared networks rather than shared geography, people can slip through the cracks; find themselves, like Natalie Jean Wood, belonging to no networks. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe we need to foster better relationships with our geographic neighbours. This won’t see us returning to the village. My primary connections will still lie outside my street. But somehow we need to become connected enough to notice the neighbour who has no networks and to invite her into ours.
I was delighted today by a newspaper article on David Ferrer, the world no. 3 ranked tennis player often overlooked by spectators and press. He is quoted as saying.
Tennis has given me much more than I thought it would…but my family, my friends and the people around me – in the real life, we have to be good people. This is the aim of my life.
To win one major title would maean very much to me…but it would not mean everything to me in this life to win at playing a sport.
Ferrer seems to have a genuine humility about him. He recognises that being great at sport does not make you great at being a person, and which of these matters most.
Humility is a misunderstood virtue. We often associate it with quietness, but in my experience a quiet person can be as proud as a loud one. I recall a church leader renowned for his humility on the basis of his quietness once angrily protesting to me that he was being treated like a servant when I suggested the communion servers sit in the front row rather than come up onto the stage…not so humble.
Humility as i understand it is to think honestly about yourself in relation to others, to own your strengths and weaknesses, to see that others also have strengths and weaknesses, that they are often strong where you are weak, to celebrate their strengths while exercising yours, and to learn from them whiile contributing back what you can. Moreover, it is to be free of the need to feel validated as a human being on the basis of achievements.
This is what struck me as I read David Ferrer’s story, and what I strive, with varying degrees of success, to make part of my own.
In an effort to resist the consumer orgy that is Christmas, Sandy and I agreed we would not buy each other gifts this year, but we’d make a donation to charity. But not buying gifts for each other didn’t means not giving gifts to each other. With the assistance of modern technology I made a short film that opened and closed with images of Sandy and our family transitioning in and out. In the middle I inserted footage of the kids and I each taking a turn to share a memory of Sandy that expressed something of what she means to us.
After the kids opened their presents we all gathered in my study to show Sandy the little movie we’d made. Production values weren’t high, but the emotional values were through the roof. There were tears all round as we celebrated the love we shared. Didn’t cost a cent but without a shadow of a doubt one gift that will live long in our memories.
This week I attended the funeral of a friend’s mother. I had only met her a few times, and didn’t really know her, but by the end of the funeral had a great appreciation for her. As her story was told, with humour and pathos, in eulogy, poetry and images, it became clear that here was a person who had deeply and profoundly shaped the lives of those around her.
Three things occur to me upon reflection:
1. I want to own my capacity to influence those round me. As we celebrated the impact of one person’s life, it reminded me that we all send ripples into the world, via our words, our actions and our character. We don’t need to be famous, wealthy, or exceptional. We just need to be people who seek to do and be good.
2. I want to listen to people’s stories. As I listened last Monday I couldn’t help but feel, “I wish I had known her”. I heard a story of someone with great depths of resilience, character, and love; someone whose story had all the elements of greatness – childhood happiness and hardship, a great lifelong romance, trials and triumphs. What pleasure there was to take in hearing this story, and what wisdom to plunder. I reckon we all have great stories, but all too often we don’t pause long enough to listen, enjoy and grow.
3. I want to eulogise others before they die. At funerals we share how much a person meant to us. We tell the stories of how they impacted us. Why don’t we do more of that while they’re alive? It’s something Sandy and I have tried to make a part of our story, but I don’t think its possible to overdo it. I want to spend more time in praise of others.
In place of New Year resolutions, this year I am proposing for myself five New Year affirmations.
1. Life is beautiful. Live joyfully.
Whether it be the grandeur of a sunrise, the company of friends, a good meal, or the embrace of my beloved, there is astonishing beauty to be found in life. I want to enjoy it, to savour the simple pleasures to the full.
2. Life is difficult. Live with integrity.
Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Travelled with the claim that accepting life is difficult is one of the most important things we can do. For me, 2014 will be a year of challenges, some of which I am aware of and some yet to prove an unpleasant surprise. What I aim to do is live with integrity through those challenges, to be someone who proves honest, kind, faithful.
3. Life is meaningful. Live with purpose.
Jesus calls me to “seek first the reign of God”. I want to make my life reflect this purpose. To really reflect it to the core
4. Life is shared. Live lovingly.
I share the planet with seven billion human beings and countless billions of other creatures. I want to live as if they matter, to be generous in sharing my wealth, to be just in my participation in the market, to be careful in my use of the earth’s resources, to be caring to those around me.
5. Life is a gift. Live thankfully.
I see life as a gift from my Creator. I want to live with a spirit of gratitude, in which I revere my God and treat each moment as precious.