A colleague of mine was reciting the litany of his nonstop schedule: business meetings here, dinner parties there, small children at home. At one point he said flatly, "I'm just trying to squeeze in as much as I can."
I doubt he thought of his statement as a mantra for our society. Yet it sums up the urgency that has ingrained itself like a primal drive in our society and our souls.
Why? Why are we trying to squeeze in as much as we can?
Surely, as Lynn Casteel Harper laid out in her recent post, our culture and our marketplace push us hard in that direction. We all know the evidence. Multitasking is touted as a virtue. The 24/7 schedule has become a standard expectation. Intense competition -- in business, in college admissions, in employment -- pushes people to do more and move faster just to keep up. Many of us sense the burden of unreasonable expectations: to have successful careers, be perfect parents, keep a smile on our face, save millions to finance a long retirement, all at once.
In short, postmodern culture commands us to be urgent. But why do we comply?
Many factors undoubtedly come into play. I wonder whether one of them is that we see no alternative vision. There's no clear, universally acclaimed point to what we do. So even though self-help experts tell us to slow down by distinguishing the urgent from the important, we can't because we don't know what's important.
The conditions of postmodern life give us no help. Every time we encounter the news, we see how immense and complex and frightening the world's problems are, and how powerless we are as individuals to resolve them. Our post-Christian era leaves us with no prepackaged sense of life's purpose. Beneath all of this lies the knowledge that our lifespan is limited. Whatever the point is, we don't have much time to figure it out.
What does the spiritual life have to do with all this?
By definition, spiritual practices -- prayer, meditation and others -- connect our innermost selves to the Ultimate in some mysterious way. That connection changes us. When we spend time in the presence of the Eternal -- for whom, in the words of one biblical writer, "one day is like a thousand years" -- our frantic activity suddenly seems less urgent. When we come "face to face" with the most fundamental reality in the universe, a sense of purpose, rooted in that reality, begins to grow within us. When we connect with the One Ground of All Being, we begin to grasp our interconnectedness with all being, all creation.
Over time, these insights crystallize into an alternative vision. We realize who we are: one person among billions, with one person's ability to make a unique contribution to the world. We realize what life might be about: certainly not about me, but about we -- and about shaping our lives around the Ultimate Reality rather than the "reality" that our culture dictates.
Suddenly I don't have to "squeeze everything in." I just have to do what I can -- what I can give to the life in which I find myself. For example, I have no direct influence over the U.S. government's climate change policy. But, using my gifts, I can write about it, publish what I write, and perhaps shape the opinion of someone who does have that influence. Then I have to trust the rest of humanity, and the Ultimate, to take it from there.
I have always cherished the fact that the Roman Catholic Church canonized Monica, mother of the theologian Augustine of Hippo, as a saint. As far as I can tell, Monica's great contribution to the world was that she prayed -- without ceasing -- for her wayward son. She did what she could. She made best use of her gifts. And from that came a figure who shaped the whole course of the Church.
This does not mean the spiritual life provides a constant sense of fulfillment, a confidence and certainty that leave us moving boldly into the future. Sometimes, in fact, it can lead us to stretch our abilities, take risks and brave the unknown in ways we never could have imagined. In calling us out of ourselves, however, it draws us to become our very best selves. And it empowers us to let go of the frantic urgency that drives so many of us crazy.