Sunday, March 22, 2009

Excess

"It is not so difficult to see how 'reactionary' we tend to be: that is, how often our lives become a series of nervous and often anxious reactions to the stimuli of our surroundings. ... it seems of great importance to know with an experiential knowledge the difference between an action that is triggered by a change in the surrounding scene and an action that has ripened in our hearts through careful listening to the world in which we live. The movement from loneliness to solitude should lead to a gradual conversion from an anxious reaction to a loving response. Loneliness leads to quick, often spastic, reactions which make us prisoners of our constantly changing world. But in solitude of heart we can listen to the events of the hour, the day and the year and slowly 'formulate,' give form to, a response that is really our own. In solitude we can pay careful attention to the world and search for an honest response." - Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

I've been thinking a lot over the past few months about pendula. Or, more accurately, how common it is (among my friends anyways) for people to swing like a pendulum from one viewpoint to an opposite one. If our family raised us as "good evangelical conservatives" and we don't feel comfortable with that, we lean toward something less evangelistic and more liberal. If our background includes emotional distance, we often respond with emotional neediness. If we are lonely, we do whatever we can to fill our lives with people, noise and activity.

Even though these circumstances and reactions are opposite, they have one thing in common: they represent excess. They demonstrate the swinging of our personal pendula, when "perfect peace and rest" is found most often in the center, in a middle ground between the two opposing ideas. I've been struck by Nouwen's observations about reaction and response as it relates to this concept of excess - when I react, I generally do so in excess of what the situation warrants: if I don't want the Doodle to feel suffocated, I leave her to her own devices, and conversely, if I feel like I'm not spending enough time with her, I dedicate so much time to her that I'm burned out and grumpy at the end. A more moderate solution would be to spend several smaller chunks of time with her throughout the day, so that we both would enjoy each other's company and our solitude. Moderation takes thought and deliberation; I have to be attentive and responsive to her moods and needs so that we can both spend our time well.

This sense of constantly overcompensating, always missing the mark is part of the human condition: since the Garden of Eden, we have wanted what we don't have. We think that if we just tweak this behavior, or eliminate this problem, things will be good. The grass is always greener, and we say to ourselves, "If I only had/were/did something else, I could be at rest." So we work the longer hours, we get another degree, we vote for a different party, we buy the bigger house, we espouse a different doctrine, and nothing contents us. This "longing for home", as Frederick Buechner puts it, is a legitimate longing that can only find its fulfillment in Christ (N.T. Wright also discusses this at length in his book Simply Christian). Just as a pendulum longs to rest at the center, pulled to stillness by the force of gravity, so we long for the quiet rest of God's peace.

Ironically, giving up the internet for Lent has caused me to swing to excesses. I gave up the internet because I was bothered by how much time I was spending online, doing nothing constructive. Now, though, I make it through my week and then gorge myself on Sundays on all the blogs and emails and threads that I "must" catch up on before the end of the day. As a result of being "chronic" (a term my husband and his friends use for hours- or days-long video gaming), I'm cranky, distracted and mostly absent from my family on Sundays. I've been thinking hard about how this abstinence will affect me after Lent is over; I hope that I'll be able to be more moderate in my surfing, not swinging from fast to binge, but using this medium as a tool when I need it and not just indiscriminately or compulsively. And it's made me more aware of the excesses I allow into my life when I'm operating from a frenzied place of reaction (which is most of the time) instead of the quiet of solitude. When will I recognize that binging on anything, be it the internet, lunch dates, or Girl Scout cookies will not bring me the fulfillment and satisfaction that a moderate, thoughtful enjoyment of the gifts I've received will? As the pendulum slows, and the heart settles into its solitude, God promises an abundant, rich and meaningful life. That's the life I want. That's the direction I want to head.

3 comments:

Heather said...

I've been thinking often about this pendulum idea too. This is an excellent and very thoughtful post Heidi. Thank you for sharing your insights.

C. Michael Cox said...

I was just comenting to one of my friends at work that we have effectively transitioned from the TV to the computer as a culture. But no one raises a fuss over the computer...not sure why, it is still a tool for isolation that must be moderated.

MomCO3 said...

Excellently said. Thank you, friend.