As a married father living “in the world,” I’m aware that the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s seems to operate at warp-speed. People on the roads seem impatient, there’s always something to do and somewhere to be, and folks are feeling stretched thin. It may be culturally driven as consumerism naturally ramps up during this time frame, but as Catholics we are also entering into a new liturgical cycle as well. If we’re not careful, we can get robbed as the simple and beautiful anticipation of Christmas—Christ born in a manger—becomes one more thing to “get through.”
Because we homeschool our three children, we are blessed with more time than we would otherwise have if our kids were in school. But if I’m being honest, there is no shortage of activities and opportunities in our circle: from sports to theater to poetry recitation, nature study, field trips, youth-group—our kids are probably overly-socialized! While my wife is a true introvert, and we are more or less homebodies (when we have the choice), I consider myself an “extroverted-introvert.” I genuinely like connecting with people one on one, but don’t tend to gravitate towards large gatherings as much.
We do, however, guard our family time and try to make sure we have amble unstructured “down time.” This concept of “white space”—space that has value in and of itself, not simply time that isn’t filled up with something, was something I wrote about in “The Space Between”:
“Musicians know that the space and tempo between notes is just as important as the notes themselves. Artists need to make use of negative space to contrast and accentuate the form and color that is on the canvas. Writers need to make the words on the page count, and not use too much filler. The comedian and rhetorician knows that timed pauses and strategic silences are just as important as the punchlines themselves. And every saint has found that ‘time away’ in private prayer, akin to Jesus’ retreat to ‘lonely places’ to commune with his Father, is indispensable to counter-balance active ministry. White space–the space between–has value in and of itself. It’s lack of defined substance is, by its very nature, where its value lies.”
Part of this “guarding” is in the interest of self-preservation; but I have also felt as Catholic Christians, we need to be good stewards of our time so that we are not spending it all on ourselves or our children; we should be making ourselves available to others, and in service to those in need. I came across a quote somewhere that was very convicting, since as Christians are fundamental vocation is to love: “Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is the one thing hurried people don’t have.”
In trying to maintain our balance, but also while seeing everyone around me so jam-packed with things to do, I have been thinking about this “epidemic of busyness” lately. To see if I was the only one, I reached out to a friend of ours who is a homeschooling mom of seven to get another perspective and who graciously gave me permission to use some of her insight for the purposes of this reflection.
“Even in the faithful Catholic world full of people stumbling along learning to express their cultural Catholic identity, there is this tendency to imagine every feast day is important to celebrate every time. Everything must become a tradition or activity or event. But no one was making a big deal out of St Patrick AND St Lucy AND John the Baptist AND St Anthony AND St Nicholas AND….
Don’t get me wrong. I love reading Sigrid Undset and being immersed in that medieval world where Christianity permeates the culture so much that the liturgical year was how time was marked and measured by everyone. It is beautiful.
But I think there is a temptation to take this modern tendency toward business and try to sanctify it.
Also, I think that formal activity has taken the place of casual/organic activity. As cultures shifts to one with fewer children overall, fewer stay at home mothers, and less shared culture and community, we don’t chat with other mothers out hanging their wash or play pick-up games in the neighbor’s yard.
I remember a priest who grew up in the city describing how drastically air conditioning changed the neighborhood he grew up in. Neighbors used to spend summer evenings cooling off on their front porches, which inevitably involved socializing with neighbors. But once everyone started getting air conditioners, they spent their summer evenings inside.
So, in some sense, I think our culture of busyness is an attempt to compensate for lack of community, poor neighborhood planning in the fifties, no sidewalks or front porches, and lack of a shared culture. The organic framework that used to exist for exactly what you describe (just come in for tea, let’s help elderly Mrs M with her home maintenance, etc) has left us making stuff up from scratch.
But also, there is a lot of FOMO going on and parental guilt. It can be like keeping up with the Joneses and imagining that our children are being deprived of something if we say no.
“I listened to some wise women back in the early days of the internet on Catholic homeschool forums and such. There was an emphasis on guarding the margins of your time and the reminder that it will mean saying no to *good* things. That is something I was able to take to heart. Our current world offers so much excess, and perhaps that includes excess of opportunity.”
I thought that was really insightful. For many of us, our intentions are good; we’re doing the right things while fighting an uphill cultural battle. Many of us are trying to restore a traditional faith life we were never given a blue print for, and through trial-and-error doing the best we can. But the isolation, the social fracking, is real. Exhausted moms try to curate some community in their spare moments through digital means (Facebook, chat groups, etc) because of geography. Busy dads in careers find that they are too spent at the end of the week to do much of anything, let alone get together with other men. We are a lonely generation, but for many of us we are trying to restore the health of the social soil which has been stripped by the bulldozer of modernity. And so we can sometimes over-compensate, as my friend mentioned, with “all the Catholic things” because we don’t have the benefit of those simple organic bonds that were taken for granted in previous eras. We’re trying to figure it out as we go.
As you get older, you realize time is currency; we’re all on borrowed time, and what we spend it on becomes more important and worthy of daily discernment. We pour into our children, sometimes neglecting our spouse. We focus on our family, sometimes failing to pour into our community and those in need. We focus on the material, the tangible, the schedule-able at the expense of the “useless” unstructured time and space needed for creativity, availability, and yes, even boredom. We often don’t even think that a phone call or a visit to someone who could use it is even possible, given our schedules. These aren’t big things, we just miss them.
As we enter into this reflective time of Advent, where we anticipate the coming of the Christ-child, it may be worth taking an inventory of our greatest asset—time—to see how we are spending and investing it so that we do not end up like one of the foolish virgins who miss the Bridegroom when he comes. And to make that necessary space and time, that may mean saying no to even “good” things.