I’m feeling a little stressed. (Which is my calm and writerly way of screaming at the universe, “Enough!!!”)
How do I know? Everyone and everything annoys me. I never sleep more than a few hours at a time. The only thing I really feel like eating is chocolate. I’m willing to drive three hours for a one-hour meeting just so I’ll have time alone in the car. I’m marking off the days until retirement, and it’s still five years away.
It’s not just me, either. Everyone I know is feeling stressed, which I can tell is true because we are not being good to each other. We’re critical, even of those we like and respect. We send snarky emails. We challenge and lecture. We forget and procrastinate.
The fact is, most of us are working harder than we should for not enough money or appreciation. We spend our time stretching inadequate resources unbearably thin in order to keep providing ministry or services to people in need. Institutions we thought were eternal may not last even for what’s left of our lifetimes. And of course, misogyny and homophobia and xenophobia have become as common as dirt.
I can already hear you saying, “That poor girl needs therapy.” And you’re right. I also need that classic prescription for the burned-out pastor: self-care. I need solitude. I need quiet. I need exercise. I need friends and therapy and space to reawaken my compassion for myself and others. But every time I start down one of these paths, I question my priorities. Which do I need more: a nap or two hours uninterrupted at my desk?
Today at the suggestion of a friend, I turned to Joyce Rupp’s Boundless Compassion. I was looking for a way to find again the love of neighbor that first motivated my vocation. As I scanned the pages, looking for quick, evocative quotes that would turn me in the right direction, I remembered that my old reliables like Rupp and Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen all write about the spiritual life in poetic, right-brained, evocative language meant to help us slowly feel our way into a closer walk with the divine.
But today, I needed something different. I needed something like Will Strunk’s Elements of Style for spirituality—pithy rules like “use the active voice” or “omit needless words,” to reorient my life the way Strunk’s book has sharpened up my writing. Here’s what I came up with:
1. Pay attention.
This sounds easy. Paying attention is, after all, a secular skill as well as a spiritual one. Most of us have practiced paying attention every day since kindergarten. Even my dog pays attention!
But what are we paying attention to? Email, health crises, children’s struggles, tweets. The trick for those of us who are Christian is to keep watching for God in the midst of the chaos. God is not some higher spiritual power that’s available only in silent meditation or prayer or holy places. God is all around us, even in health crises and politics. Pay attention.
2. Try praise.
There are times when praise is a reflex—an automatic, effortless response to the beauties of creation, to prayers answered or a mystery revealed. But when we’re stressed, praise is difficult because our challenges are all we see. However, there are always reasons for praise—sunset on the beach, a good joke, a child’s voice, a ride from a friend, soft fur, feather pillows. Instead of endlessly repeating the bad stuff, it won’t hurt us to suspend the litany of challenges for a few grace notes of praise.
3. Start now.
We tend to think we’ll work on our spiritual lives later—when the housework is done or a big project is finished or a child is finally sleeping through the night or our health is a little better. But there is no perfect time to reorient our spiritual lives. There is only now.
There you have it—three rules of spiritual life for those of you who, like me, lack sufficient time to retreat and reflect.
And if you want to do more than read an article, go outside right now, find the nearest tree, touch its amazing bark, and stay there touching it till the tree and you have synchronized your breathing. Standing next to that tree trying to feel it breathe may be the one thing that will slow you down enough, at least for today, to start releasing the conflicts, fears, and sorrows that feed your stress.