I’ve written on my other blog about Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. She’s interested in how we can find the sacred in the mundane events of daily life. I wrote there about her reflections upon losing her keys; you can find that post here. This post will look at another aggravation that Warren uses to teach us about God and ourselves: getting stuck in traffic.
One day, as Warren was heading home on the interstate, the traffic stopped, leaving her and everyone else just sitting still. She wasn’t happy:
“I am impatient. I live in an instant world where I like to think I am the captain of the clock. I live with the illusion that time–my time at least–is something I can control.”
She soon realized the spiritual dimension of the situation:
“And here I am, plunged into an ancient spiritual practice in the middle of the freeway–forced, against my will, to practice waiting.”
All of us have limited patience. Sitting in traffic is not a particular favorite of mine, either, though, truth be told, I’m usually bothered less by traffic congestion than I am by seeing the other lane moving more quickly than mine (delay is less an issue for me than injustice). I think that age has helped me respond more tolerantly to traffic jams as well as a variety of other inconveniences. The older I get, the more I realize that I can’t control time.
It’s not age itself but the accumulation of experience that goes with age that teaches this lesson. Warren points to one repeated experience that helps teach patience: the liturgy of Christian worship as it progresses gradually and with much waiting from one season to the next. She writes:
“The practice of liturgical time teaches me, day by day, that time is not mine. It does not revolve around me. Time revolves around God–what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do.”
Waiting and the liturgy alike teach us that what matters in the end is not my agenda, but God’s; not what I can accomplish, but what he accomplishes through me and countless others.
One thing I’ve always wondered about is why so many of us who are retired and supposedly in a position to adopt a more leisurely pace don’t do so. It’s common to hear retirees say that their lives are so full of things to do that they don’t know how they used to find time to work. I used to think that they (and some days, I’m included in their number) should just slow down. I’ve become a little more understanding as I’ve reflected on what’s motivating such overscheduling.
First, I think that our society equates busyness with importance. Thus, when work is no longer telling us how essential we are and what meaningful contributions we make, we look for something to reassure ourselves of our continued relevance. This is a matter of the ego, of the false self seeking affirmation through hoopla. For me, it’s becoming more and more important to have some time when I’m not accomplishing anything of significance. As with Warren’s practice of waiting, such apparently wasted time reorients me to the true source of meaning in life, the One in whom my hope resides.
The second reason I think some of us retirees overschedule ourselves is captured by the old joke that each morning we oldsters look for our names in the obituaries. If we don’t find ourselves listed, we decide we’re still alive and go about the day. Maybe overscheduling is similar to this: we look in our day planners to see what’s there; if there’s quite a bit to do, we know we’re still kicking. In other words, our busy days help us with what Ernest Becker called the denial of death. We don’t want to stop what we’re doing because then it will seem that we are just waiting for the end.
But of course in one sense we are waiting for the end. That pertains to all of us: the young and the old, the busy and the idle. Our hope lies not in getting a lot accomplished, nor in using our time efficiently, nor in extending our days. We either have a future hope that extends beyond this life or we don’t. And if we do have such a hope, we can afford to bide our time. In fact, we have all of eternity available. I’ll try to remind myself of that the next time I’m stuck in traffic!