Long Spoons Living

I once received an e-mail forward telling the story of a fictional tourist who wandered through heaven and hell. I typically don’t much care for forwarded e-mails, often finding them shallow and sappy. This one might be both, but for some reason it stuck with me and came around to mean something deeper.

So the story goes, our tourist arrives in hell and is surprised to see a large table around which is seated a group of people. A  large pot in the middle of the table contains plenty of food for all of them. But the only utensils the people have are spoons, as long as yardsticks, strapped to their arms. As the diners try to bring food back to their mouths, it slips off their long, clumsy utensils, leaving the people starving and emaciated.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and salsachica

To the tourist’s further surprise, heaven contains almost the same scenario: table, pot of stew, long spoons. But the people there are well-fed and happy, laughing and talking as they share the meal. Why? Because they are using their long spoons to feed each other, reaching across the table to supply one another’s needs, and in turn having other people meet theirs.

Giving is a two-way street. Growing up in a community-oriented family environment, I guess I never really questioned having my needs met by them or my responsibility to contribute to the family. The needs at stake weren’t only food, shelter, and clothing, but also love, community, and affirmation. When I went to college, I took this mentality with me: your roommates, friends, classmates, even professors, are human beings who deserve your respect and need your care. It works excellently when people in community with each other share this perspective.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and alexkalina

However, not all people do. In college especially, I met some people who were intent on using their spoons to feed only themselves, no matter how clumsy and inefficient the effort. Many were single, reasonably affluent, living on their own for the first time, and absorbed in their own education experiences. Their resources of time, money, energy, were completely consumed by activities they found fun, their own personal goals, or relationships that got them ahead. There was nothing left over to give to others. I, too, tried feeding only myself with my spoon for a while, and it left me feeling tough, yes, self-sufficient, yes, but still gnawingly hungry.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and mzacha

But constantly feeding other people with your spoon while they continue to feed only themselves is a recipe for straight-up starvation. Long-term, one-sided sacrifice and service lead to burnout and loneliness. Giving to your community is a good thing. In fact, in the short term, sometimes the best and most needed giving is to people who can’t give back. But if you’re constantly feeding others and no one reaches out to feed you back, you’ll end up malnourished, not to mention exhausted and probably disillusioned.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and LoganCale

Successful, mutual relationships are about people using their long spoons to feed each other–parents and children, husbands and wives, church communities, friends. When you look at your resources and, instead of using them all up on yourself, sacrifice some for someone else, you risk not having enough. But the most satisfying feeling in the world is when the math doesn’t add up. You give away something you want or need (affection, time, money, energy, etc.). But instead of being left hungry, someone else comes in and provides for your deficit, making up the difference.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and juliaf

It’s called love, I think. It’s looking at this enormous, awkward spoon you’ve been given to eat with and, instead of seeing it as an ill-formed impediment because the goal is feeding yourself, seeing it as the perfect tool because the point is to feed someone else.

Turning Down the Heat

You may wonder where I’ve been this week.

I’ve been learning to rest. 
Workaholism, I read somewhere, is a drug just like nicotine or caffeine. It’s a stimulant we use to hide our exhaustion, our depression, our frustration. It keeps us busy so that we don’t have to think about what’s going on below the surface, what’s wrong with our pace of life. 
But it’s only a temporary fix. The busyness only keeps a lid on life to a certain pressure point. After that, all the junk we’ve been sitting on–anxiety, estrangement, dissatisfaction, disappointment, uncertainty–overflows like a boiling pot of spaghetti that explodes in a sizzling deluge all over the stove. 
So if overworking, outrunning our problems is only a mask, how do we deal with them? How do we keep our internal pots from boiling over? 
I still have a lot to learn on this topic, but I took a few days this week to intensively focus on these things. Unlearning old habits is hard, but impending burnout is good motivation. These tips might seem obvious from the outside, but it’s amazing how effective they are when you really put them into practice!
1. Don’t turn on your computer and cell phone until you’re ready to make contact with the world in the morning. You can’t control the volume of calls and e-mails you receive in a day, but you can set some times that are technology-free. It relieves stress and restores some quiet times of focus.
2.  Make a new to-do list every day on a separate post-it or paper. Make it detailed, including all the tasks you expect of yourself in one day: Get up. Eat breakfast. Fold laundry. Then enjoy the satisfaction of checking items off and throwing away the list at the end of the day. If you didn’t finish every last thing, it’s OK: you’ll have a fresh one tomorrow. This kept me from feeling disappointed about what I didn’t accomplish during the day and helped me to realize all that I did. (It also kept me from committing to more things than I could fit on one page.) 
3. Include time for rest in the day. Spend a half-hour or an hour curled up with a book, watching your favorite TV show, taking a nap, or cuddling with pets. I found myself working more energetically, cheerfully, and efficiently during the day when I took a break somewhere in the middle. 
4.  Don’t sign up for too many things. It’s better to do each activity of your day with enjoyment, margin time, and time to stop and appreciate people than to try and cram 50,000 things into 24 hours. Say no when too many tasks threaten to overwhelm you. 
5. Surprise your family (or whoever you live with) with little, spontaneous acts of love, affection, and service. Empty the dishwasher. Bring in the garbage cans. Leave encouraging notes. When you have fewer things crammed into your day, it’s easier to find time for this, and it helps reduce your loved ones’ stress load, lifting the overall mood of home. (You’d be surprised how this comes back around, too!)
What are your secrets for setting boundaries in your life? How have you learned to pace yourself and rest? 
I’ll be out of town this coming week, so look for my next post on August 6!

Compass Living

Are you a whole person?

I’ve been feeling tired a lot lately. Not just I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep kind of tired. The kind of tired that sets in the moment you wake up and see another sunrise–knowing it’s another day of the hamster wheel, running as fast as you can before you drop.

It’s called burnout. This kind of tiredness dulls my mind, numbs my creativity, and makes me feel excited about nothing. It feels like growing old before my time.

Why? I’m young and healthy; I’ve got a family who loves me and some great friends. I’m doing work I’m passionate about. Furthermore, I know God loves me–I have purpose and significance in that. But I’m still tired.

A tough conversation with my ever-wise friend Audry shed some light on the matter. (She also just posted a great blog about fighting off creative distractions here.) Whether your work is knitting, writing, painting, composing, or delivering sermons, you know that being creative takes a great deal of mental energy. It’s a God-like endeavor: creating ex nihilo, allowing us to be little singers of the Song of God.

But it’s draining.

And more than that–it’s crookedly draining. Creating involves a lot of sitting around and thinking, squeezing those little gray cells to imagine things that no one has ever seen before. Sometimes to put in those long stretches of intellectual labor on our Works In Progress, we shut everything else out.

But we humans are like four-pointed compasses. Rene Descartes only had part of the picture when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking is part of our being, but we’re also more. Being human means we’re not only brains, but also feelings, bodies, and souls. And if we only exercise our brains, we start to wear down all on one side like lopsided erasers, while simultaneously feeling unfulfilled in those other parts of being.

Maybe this was why I was tired. So this week I set out to experiment with my routine. I decided to give myself permission to stretch and exert the other three points of my compass, in hopes of restoring my mental freshness and creative vitality–and enjoying my life.

There are some things you know by studying about them. And there are other things you know only by doing them. One of these things is physical exertion. No amount of doctor-talk about the health benefits of exercise can describe how flushed and vital you feel after coming home from a 30-minute traipse in sprinkling rain, your head full of ideas and your blood pumping to write. Better still–a hike in the hills, overwhelmed with the beauty of emerald grass and shifting sunlight, brilliant poppies and clouds traveling overhead.

Another such thing of such indescribable value is time with people, and with God. E-mails and Facebook simply are not a substitute for time with friends, family, and the Holy One. You’ve got to have face-to-face time, quantity time, especially if you spend much of your work time in relatively isolated conditions. I’m a schedule-bent efficiency junkie, but I’m realizing that not taking time to be with people will kill my energy and desire to meet the day–so I’m actually more productive when I spend time with people, away from work. More time than just exchanging “good mornings” in the kitchen. Likewise, hasty prayers are like IOUs with God that stack up–they don’t bring the soul-healing peace of extended times of contemplation and praise.

Trying these things this week has brought the life rushing back into me–joy, energy, creativity, and a desire to live the life I have. It’s easier to be thankful when you take time to notice what’s around you: the beauty of the world in spring, the humor and kindness of the people around you, the way your lungs fill with air and your eyelashes sparkle in the sunlight. It brings back the wholeness of being human–the way life was intended to be.

What do you do in your schedule to nurture wholeness in your life? What are your habits for fostering mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being?