Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Secret of Being Content

This morning is the first morning in quite a while where 2 things haven't happened:
1) I don't have hours of work to do.
2) I don't feel really sick.

To celebrate my free time, I've been indulging my habit of clicking around the internet. I love to sit at my computer in the quietness of the morning, to hear the wind blowing outside, a cup of hot cocoa (and marshmallows) next to me, and to poke around at news stories, blogs, and anything else that satisfies my never ending curiosity.

On my typical trip to the AOL homepage, I clicked on a Today Show story which eventually led me to other Today Show stories. I learned about research in life after death, a woman who claims she got pregnant again while currently being pregnant (!), and then this story...

"What Makes Women Happy?"

Interesting question.

The economists on the segment had polled women in America and Europe and gained a sense of declining happiness from women over the last 30 years or so. It's interesting to me that as women have started to do more in society - to take on more responsibilities and roles, that stress has increased and happiness has decreased. One panelist on the segment suggested a few differences between women who were happy and those who weren't. He said that women who were unhappy tended to "juggle" their responsibilities in life. The main aspect of juggling? He said it's throwing. There is never enough time to savor the moments in life that invigorate us and make us really happy. It's interesting to me because he also said that trying to maintain "balance" was an enemy of happiness. He said the truly happy women find things that satisfy them and lean into doing those things.

When I heard this, I immediately thought of my pastor's blog entry from a while back about how we should live unbalanced lives. Shocking? It was for me. Since high school, I had been trying to find "balance" in my life, which I defined as "doing it all." I scheduled art classes along with chemistry. After school tennis and early morning Bible study. Band instead of lunch. Foreign language as well as tutoring English. If there was a time slot to slide something else in, I filled it. I felt it was my job as a follower of Christ to maximize my time by doing everything I was capable of doing...

That myth of needing to be the woman who "does it all" (and does it well) continued to grow in me as I went through college. I tried to maintain social commitments, extracurriculars, volunteering, work, and school, while commuting daily and also remaining committed to God and my family. The result? I was always running on empty, not able to do anything with my full strength and joy. My health was failing at the time. I was being spread too thin. I thought my genuine heart to do right by everyone would miraculously give me the health and strength to keep going forever, but I was wrong. I burned out.

At the height of my quest to do everything, I remember being asked to go to a movie with someone, and I didn't want to go. It was a late movie, and it was far away. I needed to just go home and relax. However, because I had no prior commitment, I felt that I had to say yes. It was an open time slot. I was worried I would make the person feel bad if I opted for staying home instead of going out with them. It was a turning point for me when I said "no" to that invitation. I remember it clearly. It was just the beginning of learning to set boundaries and to toss this idea of "doing it all" out the window.

The thing that I've learned since then is: I can't do it all. No one can. Not a single person can do everything they want, along with everything expected of them, and do it all well. It just doesn't work. Something has to give, whether its the quality of your work, the enjoyment of your social life, the intimacy of your closest relationships, the amount of sleep each night, or (in my case) your health. There are sacrifices for striving for balance. I think satisfaction in life is the first to go. The stress of added commitments can be like a python, slowly squeezing the joy out of life.

Illness is a quick way to identify priorities. If you've never heard of The Spoon Theory, I recommend you read it. It basically says that illness limits the amount of energy in any given day (represented by a fist full of spoons). Each activity we do in a day requires we give up a spoon (showering, driving, talking, preparing a meal). There comes a point with chronic illness where I run out of spoons for the day, and if I "push" to do an important activity, I may end up borrowing all my spoons for the next day, or even the next week, leaving me sick and unable to function after the event is over. (I did this over a week ago, and I'm just now starting to feel more like myself.) My point is that I have learned only to put my valuable energy (my spoons) into things that really matter: relationships that are quality, a hobby or two that I really enjoy, work I feel God has given me to do, and even resting purposefully.

What I've learned from my pastor, from trials, and from illness is a whole new perspective and appreciation for "unbalance." (If you only knew what a 180 it is for me to write this!) I've found that I serve God better and have more joy when I focus on pouring myself passionately into only what He has called me to do. Not what society tells me I should do. Not what my inner expectations tell me. Not even what seems "good." Even "good" things like service projects can snag me into being spread too thin. Just like I can't send money to every worthwhile charity, I can't spend my energy on every worthwhile activity. I need to listen for the voice of God, and when I hear him speak, I need to do what he's asked, as long as he asks, with everything I have. Sometimes, God asks me to go through things I don't feel strong enough to endure. Sometimes, God asks me to completely rest, which can be just as hard (if not harder) to obey.

Learning to live unbalanced and focus solely on those things that please God can be a tricky business. I still feel the pressure of "doing" and "accomplishing" when I rest. I fight guilt when I say no. I worry when I can't get emails and phone calls returned quickly. I struggle to block responsibilities and distractions out of my mind when I pray or read the Bible. But it also brings a miraculous sense of peace when I finally let go of trying to do everything. Resting in the grace of Christ while passionately devoting myself to his work is the key to gaining the joy that Christ died to give me. Jesus said:

The thief comes only in order to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance (to the full, till it overflows).
John 10:10

This enjoyment that he talks about is not transient happiness from the good seasons in our life. It's a sustainable joy that resides deep in our hearts no matter the storms that may rage all around. When Paul says in Philippians 4 that he has learned the secret of being content in any and all situations, it's because he had this special brand of enjoyment in Christ. If we look at Paul's life, he didn't have everything in balance. He was a man of extreme passion, to the point of persecuting Christians before he met Christ. But then, after his encounter with Jesus, his passion was for telling others the truth of the gospel no matter the obstacles, danger, jail time, or harm he faced. He wrote:

"I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

When he said he can do "everything," it didn't mean he could do all activities he wanted with moderation - it meant he could face any extreme circumstance through Christ's strength. When I face extreme circumstances, as I do currently, asking Christ for strength has been my secret weapon. When I keep my focus not on living a balanced life, but on loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind, he gives me peace that passes understanding and the strength to press on.

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