I engaged in radical rebellion yesterday — just a little baby bit of rebellion, and then a little bit more today. My subversive act was this: to just do one thing at a time. Have you ever attempted this?
To just fold that hand towel? To only drink a cup of coffee? To simply walk around the block?
Have you ever done just one thing? And then followed it by doing another, singular thing? And then strung a whole day together of one-things-done-at-a-time like that? I haven’t actually ever achieved this before. Like I said, I just started my rebellious streak yesterday and I don’t have a single tattoo to prove it.
If you’re an Enneagram 3 like me, such plodding tasks like unpacking groceries have no value unless they are accompanied by a podcast or scrolling social media or checking email. In other words, the boring stuff requires iPhone enhancement for legitimacy. Chores need sparkly additions to be actual accomplishments in the To Do List that is the sum-total of my life, which apparently only has room for exciting exploits.
But if you’re not an Enneagram 3, I bet you face a similar temptation this time of year because now we all have a part-time job called “Christmas.” To compound my predicament, my position as the Christmas Associate of the Rhodes household is being curtailed two weeks early so I can have a hysterectomy the first week of December. (Joy to the world!)
I’ve got to get Christmas done two weeks early.
So you can imagine how Thomas Merton’s words hit me the other night when I was reading Tyler Stanton’s wonderful book, Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer. Merton was asked what the “leading spiritual disease” of our time is. His answer?
“Efficiency.” (p. 38)
Efficiency is a disease? And all this time I’ve thought efficiency was a mark of health, of good character in someone who valued time and its fleeting nature and didn’t want to waste any of it. As another Christmas rolls down the hill and gathers steam to clobber us, aren’t we all looking at each other like, “It’s Christmas time…again? Didn’t we just do this?”
Time is rushing past, off and away, and we in our mid-lives feel carried along faster and faster each year. So why wouldn’t I listen to a helpful podcast while folding my laundry if it’s going to help me achieve something in my writing or in my acting in 2024 that I might not otherwise have the insight to attain if I squandered this micro-opportunity? A moment spent folding socks surely doesn’t have the same weighted value as a moment crafting an essay. I’m barreling towards the grave, and I want something solid and weighty to leave behind. (I once read an obituary of a woman that read, “She cooked many healthful meals for her family.” That. Was. IT.)
It's here we must notice Thomas Merton didn’t call efficiency the disease of success or of achievement. It’s clear efficiency is the Vitamin-C of to-do lists and legacies and a big social media following. Efficiency is the yoga of schedule-keeping, the 8-hours-of-sleep for bank accounts. Efficiency is very healthy for many aspects of adult life in this particular culture. (Or is it? That’s another essay.)
And yet I am diseased. My spirit is sick.
Suddenly, a sharp mental image from childhood cuts through: I’m Mickie Mouse in his oversized wizard hat conjuring the broomsticks and conducting the music. I point my wand from task to task, from thought to thought. I’m fluid in my movements, manic in my thinking, bringing out the woodwinds in this moment, letting the horns rip the next. Raising my baton (aka, my iPhone), I bring the volume to high pitch – all the plans for the Christmas party swirling intermittently as I scroll for porch décor, which melds into a single melodic line that blasts through: are my jeans getting too tight? Quickly I look away, making eyes at the brass as if to say, “it’s your turn now,” and they blare a line and suddenly I’m back to folding laundry. But it won’t be long before I look over to the percussion. Soon I’ll be eating a meal while reading the news while scheduling my dentist appointment, and that won’t even be the climax of the song. No, that will come while I’m driving down Forest Park while mulling over a tense email exchange with a friend while talking to Drew about the new shoes he needs while listening to Christmas music while picking the dead skin off my lower lip.
Have you ever just…driven somewhere? Without the illness?
It’s the pivoting, I think, that seduces and sickens me. There’s power in training a gaze somewhere specific and then moving it somewhere else. The switching from attention to attention is intoxicating because it makes me somehow above it all, outside the glass dome, and yet still able to meld tasks and jobs together in beautiful parallels, lovely harmonies of little achievements. All of nature waits for my signal! I’m the great weaver of reality! And now I’m very, very seasick.
And what’s especially tempting is to try to weave prayer into this multi-tasking frenzy. I’ve said before that prayer is an act, a bushed button. Can prayer be just one more thing I incorporate into this fever dream I’m whipping up?
I don’t think so.
Real prayer, in some sense, must mean to stop. To pause. It’s a net negative on the to-do list, but not because it means to stop all activity. (Can’t a brick layer lay brick prayerfully?) It’s the frenzy that needs to stop, the drunken attention shifting. And this is why prayer is so rebellious because it feels like a king abdicating a throne or Mickie dropping his wand. What would it feel like to walk away from all I’ve decided depends on me? Even for a few little moments here and there?
As Paul says in Colossians 3, “Be content with obscurity, like Christ.” (The Message). Can I live the obscure life? Can I read a book with my full attention? Can I tie a shoelace? Open a jar? Maybe. And if I find myself multi-task-mastering myself again, I should check to see if I’ve retaken my throne.
Maybe I can let the conductor have his baton back, sit down in my assigned section, and wait with all the other beloved players. He’ll take an inhale, holding the baton aloft, and then I will begin to play the part assigned to me: to empty the dishwasher. This will be my melody at a specific time and place. I have no chords to play, just the one thru-line, because I’m third flute from the left of the bazillionth row. Maybe I will play my flute as beautifully as I can, heart and soul, and all will be well. And this will be prayer because it will be training my attention in His singular direction and not looking away, even while I attend to the task at hand. This will be prayer because it will have been an acceptance of willing obscurity, yet a beloved participation in the whole.
This won’t be good for my to-do list. But it will be healthy for my soul, an antidote to pride and a salve for anxiety. So I will try to do this more and more this month: just to do the thing I happen to be doing at the time and that’s it.
To just wash my face. To only chop this apple. To simply write an email newsletter.
Just. Only. Simply.
I believe this will make for a very merry, very insubordinate December.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julie K. Rhodes the author of the newest book, Chronic Grace, lives in Fort Worth, TX, with her husband Gordon and two teenage kids Drew and Maddie, plus pug Eloise ("The Eyeballs."). She performs regularly on stages all over Dallas-Fort Worth area and has multiple film and commercial credits.