A Holy Waste of Time

This piece was written last summer while I was on retreat. As we speak I’m staying at an isolated retreat village several hours out of town, the first vacation I’ve taken since that weekend trip and the first long vacation I’ve had in 16 months. It seemed like an appropriate time to post this.

View from St AndrewsAs I write this I’m sitting the the freshly refinished deck of St. Andrew’s Retreat Center on Hood Canal. I have a view of the water, a warm breeze, and the surprisingly comforting smell of fresh paint. I’m here as part of a retreat weekend for young adults called “A Holy Waste of Time.” The point of the weekend is to simply relax. There’s activities to do, but all are voluntary. There’s a hike to go on if you feel like it, and a movie tonight if you want. Right now I’m choosing not to play dominos with some of the other young adults, and in a little while I’ll choose to go to an evening chapel service with them.

In the last few years I’ve developed a real fixation with doing things. I have trouble unplugging and relaxing. I’m always working, always moving, always searching for that elusive secret to perfect productivity. I feel guilty when I sit around doing nothing for too long. I feel bad when items on my to-do list linger. I chastise myself all the time for minutes wasted and activities left undone.

It’s one of my favorite phrases, “left undone.” I know it from the written confession used by the Episcopal Church, the same church that’s putting on this retreat. In the confession we confess that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” The congregation I grew up in didn’t say the confession much, which is a liturgical policy I support. But I always loved that phrase, I suppose because it reminds us that living a good life isn’t just about refraining from the so-called evil temptations, but also about proactively doing good in the world.

I spent the first few years out of college getting rid of the bad in my life. I got rid of unnecessary spending. I got rid of eating junk. I got rid of so many unneeded possessions. And in that way I took care of the sins I had done, and was left with what I had left undone. I had the writing I never got around to. I had the languages and instruments I wanted to learn. But what I didn’t realize was that I had placed myself on a hamster wheel. There is no limit to what has been left undone. Because every inch of the world may have been explored, but not yet by me.

This is not what is intended in our confession, and it’s not what I intend for my life. But the focus and drive that allows me to do so much of what I want also blinds me to the world as it goes by. I’m rarely able to casually waste time anymore. Wasted time is a productivity sin. If I want to sit back and enjoy myself, I have to define it clearly as free time. I have to proactively tell myself to stop being proactive.

AltarAnd that’s why I’m here, wholly wasting time. I might normally feel guilty about not playing with the other people, but not today. I wanted to use this time to write. Granted that’s because I still feel the need to keep up my 200+ day streak of writing every day, but the sentiment is there. I want the freedom to watch the movie later, which means finishing my writing now.

I know that I push myself harder than I need to, but I also know that the road to my goals is paved with my accomplishments. I keep working because I still want the things that only work can provide. And intellectually I understand the value of taking breaks, of letting go, of closings one’s eyes. But it’s difficult to stop the wheel once it’s turning. It may be hard to keep running, but it’s harder to jump off.

But I try. Right now, I’m trying. The deck is getting a little dark and a little chilly. The house caretaker showed me how to turn on the fireplace earlier. Perhaps I’ll go sit by the fire. Perhaps I’ll read a book. Maybe I’ll take a nap, and not feel bad about it at all.