True story: In the early 1950’s an upholsterer from San Francisco was called into a doctor’s office to reupholster the chairs in the waiting room. As he discussed the chairs and options with the doctor, he said, “People don’t wear out chairs this way.” The problem: it was just the front edge of the chairs that were worn. Further back in the seat was just fine. Five years later, the same problem appeared.
It was in 1959 that Drs. Friedman and Rosenman began to put the pieces together. They had noticed an odd pattern shared by many of their patients, a pattern that centered on a “chronic sense of time urgency.” Patients showed irritability at being made to wait in line, had difficulty relaxing, and were anxious over delays. Obsessed with not wasting a moment, they spoke quickly, interrupted often, hurried those around them, and were forever rushing. Hence the waiting room chairs: the patients sat on the edge of their seats, nervously fidgeting at the arms of the chairs as they watched time tick by.
The doctors called the new disease “hurry sickness.” What was their specialty? They were cardiologist and their patients all had heart problems. According to Friedman, hurry sickness “arises from an insatiable desire to accomplish too much or take part in too many events in the amount of time available.” The hurry-sick person is unable to acknowledge that he can do only a finite number of things. “As a consequence, he never ceases trying to ‘stuff’ more and more events in his constantly shrinking reserves of time.”
Have you heard of Karoshi? It is a Japanese term that translates “overwork death.” Companies are now having to compensate families when a family member dies of Karoshi. For example, a man worked 110 hours per WEEK at one company. He died of a heart attack. Age: 34. In another case, a bus driver worked for more than 80 hours per week, every week, without a single day off in 15 years. He died of a stroke. Age: 37. I think I have a pretty good work ethic, but nothing like that. Even so, I may not be at work, but there are weeks and months that go by that are complete blurs of going and doing. Blaise Pascal: “When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” (Pensées, II.139)
Jesus, don’t you care that I am running around like a chicken with my head cut off, while my sister, Mary, just sits there like a bump on a long? Tell her to get her lazy behind up and help me! “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Martha was showing hospitality to the guest of all guests. She was showing hospitality by preparing a meal for Jesus – for God. Martha was faithfully doing ministry, yet it was her sister, Mary, who was sitting at the feet of Jesus. However, according to Jesus, even though Martha was doing ministry, Mary had chosen the better part. (As an aside, can’t you almost see Mary sticking out her tongue at her sister?) Martha was doing ministry by serving God, but an opportunity had been provided to listen and learn from God, so Mary, in choosing to sit at the feet of Jesus had chosen the better part.
We discussed this on Wednesday, but it is something we should all consider. We talk a good deal about serving others. Last week it was about being a neighbor and the week before it was about the fact that our faith is active, not passive – going, doing, praying, ministering, evangelizing, etc. Yet, if we say only this, then it would seem that our faith is never about sitting quietly in our rooms, or sitting and simply listening to our God speak. But there is a balance, because before we can sit and listen, we must first stop moving. We must stop sitting on the edge of the seat, like hair pinned triggers and discover rest and peace in our lives.
An archaeologist once hired some tribesmen to lead him to an archaeological site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled, the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”
We must learn to be still, to stop moving, even in ministry, and allow time for our souls to catch up and to sit at the feet of Jesus so that we might listen and learn from him, because it is there that we can be spiritually nourished and restored.
St. Gregory, in his Pastoral Rule, wrote, “Holy men go forth as lightings when they come forth from the retirement of prayer to the public life of employment, they are sent and they go, when from secrecy of inward meditation they spread forth into the wide space of active life, but after the outward works which they perform they always return to the bosom of prayer, there to revive the flame of their zeal and to glow as it were from the touch of heavenly brightness. For they would freeze too speedily amid their outward works – good though they are – did they not constantly return with anxious earnestness to the fire of prayer,” to the feet of Jesus.
Put another way, even the great saints of God must stop for a while and allow their souls to catch up. You and I are no different. We must find that balance – and it is different for each of us – but we must find that balance that allows us to carry on with the mission of Christ’s church, while at the same time allows us to receive the grace and renewal which comes from God. But still, the reason for rest does not end there.
You are probably familiar with the passage in the Book Ecclesiastes that begins: To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted…
Yet, perhaps we are less familiar with the passage that follows: “What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)
Not only should we make time to sit at the feet of Jesus, but we should also make time to enjoy life.
There’s a story about a child psychologist who wanted to observe how different children respond to negative circumstances.
They got a room and filled it with horse manure. Putting a pessimistic child in there, they observed how he responded. Predictably, he whined and cried, and despaired that he was in a room full of smelly manure.
They put another child in there, and the little guy started tearing around the room, digging in the manure with an excitement that baffled the on-lookers.
After a few moments of watching this, they asked him why he was so excited. He replied, “With all this manure in the room, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”
In the words of Hans Christian Andersen, “Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
We can get so busy in this life that we can end up with that “hurry-sickness” or karoshi or just get to the point where we think that life is really nothing more than a room full of poo, but we will discover that there is so much more if we will take the time to sit quietly in our rooms, to sit listening and learning from Jesus, and by simply enjoying all that the Lord chooses to bless us with.
We all must work like Martha, but we can also all be like Mary and discover the time to choose the better part.
I’ll close with a prayer by Susan Burke, found in The Notre Dame Book of Prayer. Let us pray: Lord, help me to create a balanced life. Help me to take time to enjoy life, to be a person full of gratitude. Help me take time to love, to extend my hand in service to those around me. Lord, remind me to take time to learn, to be disciplined and accountable. Help me to make a difference in the small and big moments of my life. Lord, help me to keep smiling, to be happy and true to myself. Lord, infuse me with your spirit so I can create a life of balance, moderation, and simplicity. And whatever my challenge, let it be an occasion to deepen my life’s purpose. Amen.