I am spending some time in the US this Australian summer. It’s my fourth time here. My first impressions this time are that, for most people, life is a daily battle to get everything done. It’s about making the bucks, working so hard that we no longer know what we’re working towards. No one seems to stop and smell the roses.
A culture that stops reflecting is a culture that doesn’t know where it’s going. This article is not a criticism of the US, because Australia, where I come from, is just the same. And even more so, I don’t spend enough time reflecting in my own life. But in this land where freedom and the individual pursuit of happiness is the guiding light that will lead us to the Promised Land, it seems to stand out more.
It has been said that we in the West have “noisy souls.” That is, we have so much going on in our brains that we are no longer able to take notice of the little things in life. We are so wired that we don’t know how to stop and notice the birds singing.
The US is a very self-sufficient, “can-do” nation, which is odd for a country that was founded on the ideals of the Pilgrim Fathers who wanted to establish a country faithful to God. The godly life is of course the opposite of self-sufficient. This has been misunderstood by many though (including myself) to mean sitting back and waiting for God to act. It was that great American, Martin Luther King, who said, “The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It, too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition.”
King of course was a man of action. He did not wait but put his faith into action, trusting that what his people were doing was God’s will. If a country is to be truly godly, it will not passively sit back. It will go forth boldly and put in place policies that are just, compassionate and that work for the common good. This is what it really means to be a can-do society. It is not “can-do” in terms of being self-sufficient, it is “can-do” in terms of doing what is right.
The Letter of James is pertinent here. He talks forthrightly about putting faith in action. There is no waiting around for James. Faith without works is dead. You may as well not proclaim that you have faith at all.
This “God-sufficiency” that characterises a godly people is complemented by the recognition of the need to consistently reflect on what life is all about. The real reason we work so hard is to make enough money to be comfortable. But in our 24/7 society, we are working so hard that we have forgotten why we do it. the harder we work, the more stressed we are; the longer hours we work, the less time we have for our families, and so it goes on. Our working ourselves to death is defeating the very purpose of why we work like this.
It is imperative that we take the time to consistently reflect on our lives. It was Socrates, many thousands of years ago, who wisely said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Examining our lives restores a sense of meaning. We are once again filled with purpose, and this purpose gives us a new energy to renew our focus on our work and do it with more passion instead of more desperation. We will actually be more relaxed as we work hard, because we know why we are doing what we do.
Richard Rohr talks a lot about mindfulness, about being in the present. If we are constantly distracted by living in the past or the future, we are simply unable to be as productive and reliable as we would if we are present for people now. Our society though is built around distraction. Advertising assaults us with dreams of getting away from it all, having a sea change, driving off into the sunset in your brand new shiny car. The dream of life, we are told, is that work is drudgery. Real living is exciting, has endless fun, and doesn’t include those annoying people you wish you could get away from.
Mindfulness helps us in every way. More than producing a healthy society, it produces healthy relationships. When you’re talking with someone who is present, you feel listened to, you feel heard. You have their full attention and you are respected. That means a lot.
Spending time each day in quiet reflection – it doesn’t need to be more than 20 minutes to half an hour – will do wonders for your sense of wellbeing. And for people of faith, when you use a simple word (something like “Jesus”) to keep you on track from the distractions around you, it becomes an opportunity to get more intimate with God. And that is what we are all looking for deep down.
Anything we use to fill our empty lives that is external will never work. It will leave us emptier than before. Witness the social statistics in Western society since World War Two. Depression has risen tenfold, we have children on anti-depressants, food allergies are common place, and loneliness is an epidemic.
It is only as we look within and find our true desire for wholeness, for God, that we will find the life we are looking for. It was St Augustine who said that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It is as we give ourselves away that we are filled in the giving. That is done by conscious reflection on our purpose for living. Jesus did that. We are told he spent whole nights in prayer (Luke 6:12). For me, the fact that Jesus did it is enough motivation for me to do the same. It doesn’t have to be all night, but consistent reflection on how we can serve God more will benefit us no end. The world needs us to do it.