I want to start off this morning by asking a question.
How often do you feel in a hurry? If one means, “I never feel in a hurry at all” and 10 means, “I always feel in a hurry, even right now, so could you please get on with it?” how would you rate how you usually feel? If you gave yourself a 1, raise your hands…
My observation is that many of us often seem to be in a hurry. We often seem to be a little rushed. We often seem to be a little short on time. We often seem to be focused on our next task, our next appointment or the next item on our to-do list.
Nationwide and worldwide, the speed at which we are living our lives is literally killing us.
We’re eating more fast food on the go and more processed foods at home. We’re exercising less. We’re not sleeping enough, which may be keeping Starbucks in business but is not good in other ways. Did you know that these days drowsy drivers cause more accidents than drunk drivers?
We’re more stressed, anxious, and depressed.
We don’t have as many friends as people in past generations, and here I’m talking about real friends and not online friends.
We’re spending less time with our spouses and our children.
We don’t participate as much in the wider community.
We’re trashing our planet.
On the whole, we’re not enjoying our lives as much as we could.
All of these are related to the speed at which we are living our lives.
Why, you may ask, is this a religious issue?
If our lives are a precious gift, then some of us are squandering the gift of life. We’re not, as Thoreau urged us, “sucking the marrow” out of life, but we’re skimming over the surface of our lives.
Woody Allen once said that he taken a speed reading course and then read War and Peace. He said, “I think it’s about Russia.” Some of us are living our lives with the same level of depth and satisfaction.
I know I’ve talked about this topic many times before, but it’s been on my mind again lately, especially since my sabbatical.
As I told you after I returned in August, one of the best things about my sabbatical was my experience of radically slowing down. I never felt bored, I stayed busy, and the days filled themselves up, but I felt myself radically slowing down. I didn’t feel like I was in such a hurry any more. I became much more relaxed. I drove slower. I stopped honking at people who didn’t move after traffic lights turned green. I stopped timing my family at Interstate rest stops. I became more patient.
I started living much more in the present moment.
I started enjoying life a lot more.
It even made me a better minister.
During my sabbatical, I made one pastoral visit, to Jean Hueston in July, a few days before she died.
I had visited Jean many times over the years, and I always enjoyed my visits with her. But Jean talked very slowly because of her stroke. She sometimes told the same stories over and over again. And I sometimes started to get anxious about the time if our visits ran too long.
That evening, though, on my last visit with Jean, I was able to be totally present to her, which is what she deserved.
When I returned to the church in August, I made a commitment to myself to keeping leading life at a slightly slower pace. I knew I couldn’t continue in “sabbatical mode,” but at the same time, I didn’t want to return to the pace I was living before my sabbatical.
I’ve been somewhat successful in keeping this commitment to myself, but I’ve also noticed my life is speeding up faster than I’d like. I notice certain signs.
Nobody can dawdle better than a five-year-old, which is perfectly fine if a parent is not in a hurry but terribly annoying if one is, and so one sign is how many times I yell every day, “Kai, hurry up!” The number has been edging up.
Another sign is how frustrated I get having to slow down for the multiple photo-enforced school zones on my way back and forth to work.
Another sign is how often I have that fantasy about a meteor crashing into the earth and killing no one but knocking the entire Internet and phone communication for about a month.
I’ve skimmed through dozens of books and articles about how to live a slower, more meaningful life. (For anyone who missed the irony of that statement, please see me after the service.) However, I’ve found it more helpful to reflect on some of the things I did during my sabbatical that helped me slow down.
Some of you may say, “Duh, you didn’t have to come to work, and that’s why you could slow down so much,” but it was more than that. I know retired people who always seem to be rushed, and I know people who work full-time who don’t.
When I reflect on my sabbatical, I think I did three important things.
Before I started my sabbatical, I had such high expectations. It felt like such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I had waited so long for it. Yet, before it even started, I knew the challenge I would face. At first, six months of unstructured time seems like such a long stretch of time, but realistically, I knew it wasn’t. It was only 183 days. In everyday life, 183 days seem to pass in the blink of an eye.
I knew I could set so many goals for myself and commit myself to doing so many different things, I might come back more worn out than before I left. So I knew it was terribly important for me to have realistic expectations of what I could and couldn’t do during those six months.
In addition to have realistic expectations, I set priorities. More than a year before my sabbatical began, I started a list of possible things I might do during my sabbatical. Being a freakishly obsessive list maker, I kept this list in on a sortable, multi-column Excel spreadsheet. It got long. It started to look like a bucket list.
Before my sabbatical began, I knew I had to narrow down this list, and decide which things were most important to me. This was hard. In some ways, it felt like one of those exercises in which there are 10 people and five seats in a lifeboat, and you have to decide who to throw overboard. Saying yes to one thing meant saying no to a long list of other things. It wasn’t the case that some things were worthwhile and some things weren’t. I also knew by saying no to some of these things, I might not get to do them for a long time, if ever.
I finally narrowed my priorities to three: (1) Taking better care of myself, (2) spending quality time with Hiromi and Kai, and (3) writing a book. Choosing these three things didn’t mean I wouldn’t do anything of the other things on my list, but these were the three things to which I was most committed.
They were good choices. I don’t regret them. If I had to do it over again, I’d make the same three choices. When my sabbatical began, I was excited about them. But even as my sabbatical began, there was also a tiny tinge of sadness, recognizing that I wouldn’t be able to do absolutely everything I wanted to do.
In addition to having realistic expectations and setting priorities, I also set up some boundaries for myself.
I had told all of you that I would be out of contact during my sabbatical and not returning phone or email messages, but truthfully, I didn’t know what I would do if somebody called and left a message on my phone. I didn’t trust myself to ignore it. I might even lay awake thinking about it. So at the beginning of my sabbatical, I took the SIM card out of my mobile phone and smashed it into a hundred pieces with a hammer.
I also set some strict boundaries for myself around other things that had been “time sucks” in my life. I stopped using Facebook all together, checked email once a week, and didn’t go online unless absolutely necessary. I also stopped watching TV, listening to NPR, or reading any newspapers, and started reading one weekly newsmagazine instead, freeing myself of the false urgency the 24-hour news cycle.
When I reflect back, I think doing these three things - - (1) having realistic expectations of myself, (2) setting priorities, and (3) creating some strict boundaries - - enabled me to slow down as much as I did.
Now that I’m back at church, I’m trying to keep these three things in mind as I continue to try to keep my commitment a leading a slower, more meaningful life.
For anybody of us here this morning who might be interested in leading a slower, more meaningful life, I want to suggest we might ask ourselves, “Are our expectations of ourselves realistic?”
My suspicion is that many of us have totally unrealistic expectations of ourselves regarding how much we should be doing or can be doing in our lives.
One of those little statistics that troubles me is that since about 1970 women’s level of life satisfaction in industrial countries, absolutely and relative to men’s, has been declining. This has been happening at the same time as freedoms and opportunities for women have dramatically increased. This is true of women who work outside the home full-time and who stay at home full-time. This is true of women whether they have children or not. My guess as to why this is so - - and it’s purely conjecture - - is that while opportunities for women have increased dramatically, cultural expectations about what any women should be able to do - - have a successful career while raising perfect children with a loving partner - - have increased even more, and so unrealistically that nobody could possibly meet them.
For all of us, though, I think one of the challenges we face is that there are so many more possibilities these days about how we might spend our time. There are so many worthy causes we might get involved with. There are so many worthwhile things we might do.
Even with things that are supposed to be fun, we are overwhelmed with possibilities. At our house, we have so many movies in our Netflix cue, watching them sometimes almost feels like a chore.
At our house, we’re busy talking about possible extra-curricular activities for our son. He now goes to swim lessons twice a week, but many of his friends are already playing tee-ball, and playing soccer. How many extra-curricular activities are realistic for a five-year-old?
So here’s a question I have for all of you. Are you being realistic with yourself about how much you should be doing in your life or even can be doing in your life?
If we decide our expectations of ourselves are realistic, then wonderful. If not, we might ask ourselves a second question - - “What are our priorities?” What is it that gives our life the most enjoyment and meaning? Or what is it that we can only do at this particular time in our lives?
Related to this, what is it that we might give up? Maybe it’s something we enjoy doing or is worthwhile, but not quite as much so as other things.
Carl Honore, the author of In Praise of Slowness, from which one of our readings came this morning, was an avid tennis player but decided to give tennis up until his child got older. Given the choice of playing tennis or spending more quality time with his child, he chose his child.
For me, this is always the toughest question to answer, because I want to do everything, and it’s so easy for me to lie to myself that I can do everything, or that I can do everything and do it well, or I can do everything and not feel rushed.
A third question we might ask ourselves is, “What boundaries do we need to create for ourselves?”
We need to create boundaries regarding things that we have to live with, but that would totally flood and overwhelm our lives without some kind of boundary. Boundaries can be physical boundaries like levies or seawalls or barbed wire fences or mosquito netting.
Boundaries can also be boundaries of time. When we light this Chalice every Sunday, we are creating a sacred boundary, symbolizing that we’re going to be together in a different way for a while.
People who honor a sabbath and keep sabbath rules are creating a boundary so that other parts of their life don’t flood into a time set aside for rest, renewal, reflection, and recreation.
From my perspective, the area of life where people need the strongest boundaries these days is around work. More than a century ago, people fought for the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week, but these days a third of college graduates work more than 50 hours every week and a fifth of Americans don’t take all their allotted vacation time.
The reason that smart phones, tablets, and laptop computers pose such a danger is they wipe out the boundary between work and private life. Many Americans put in a second shift after dinner, and vacations just mean they work from someplace else than their offices.
The troubling thing is, many if not most people are doing this voluntarily. Most people have more of a choice about how long they work than they tell themselves.
We sometimes have to set up boundaries around people who we may love and care for but would suck the life out of us without boundaries.
It probably would be a good idea for us to set up boundaries around other things or activities that suck the time and energy out of lives.
Do we want to live slower, more meaningful lives? Three questions: “Are our expectations of ourselves realistic?” “What are our priorities?” “What boundaries do we need to create for ourselves?”
My friends, may we savor and not squander this gift of life we have been given. So may it be. Amen.