Friday, May 18, 2012

Wasting Time, Every Day

Making good use of time requires discipline.

It is a particular challenge, however, for anyone who does "mental work." It is difficult because we are surrounded by superficial thinking that comes to us in glittering packages of "information." It can't be denied that the technological vortex of television and the internet creates an environment that makes it so easy to indulge in a dissipating curiosity. Those of us who work regularly with these resources--either professionally or as an apostolate, or both--know how great a challenge this is. It is a daily struggle.

And, almost always, it is a daily failure.

I am a teacher, a writer, and (God help me) an "intellectual." That last category is dangerous, amorphous, and very fuzzy. Beware of the intellectuals! And beware especially of the "Catholic intellectuals"! We are the Scribes and Pharisees. We love to scrub the outside of the cup and leave the inside dirty. We devote all our wits and all our education to scrubbing the outside of the cup, because we don't want it to be known that we've got as much dirt on us as everybody else. We are hypocrites.

I am a hypocrite.

Needless to say, by openly admitting this fact, I am hoping from the inside of my dirty cup that you will look at me and say, "Well he admits it. He's better than the rest of them. He's humble." Haha, don't be fooled. The human heart is a tricksy little schemer.

And I could continue down this self-deprecating path, with the desire that you will respond with comments of reassurance and applause. It's true that with me this is a bit pathological. But who doesn't seek approval? Who doesn't want to be "liked" (both really and virtually)? I certainly do. Please, applaud! Make me feel good about myself! My mangled and mixed motives are part of what keeps me moving along.

Oh, the human animal! This little thing, practically crawling on the ground, that aspires to be the center of the universe. At the same time, there is a grandeur about this small being who cries out, "What does it all mean?" We are full of contradictions, and we make a mess everywhere we go! But then, we are also full of surprises.

At a certain point we all need to just have a good laugh at ourselves.

"Intellectuals" need to laugh at themselves a lot. Certain distractions are good for them. For example, food. Personally, I recommend having a five year old daughter hanging around your neck all day. That's an excellent distraction. But really, we also need time to concentrate. We need to focus. We need to think.

After all, Jesus didn't condemn the intellectuals for thinking. He condemned them for exalting themselves (see Matthew 23:12). He condemned them for being dissipated, preoccupied with the surface of things, with wealth, honor, and reputation. He didn't tell them to stop cleaning cups. He told them to clean the inside first (Matthew 26:26). He told them to focus their attention on the essentials (see 26:23).

One member of the intelligentsia actually evoked the approval of Jesus (see Mark 12:28-34). There was the scribe who asked Jesus, "what is the greatest commandment?" He was aiming at the heart of the matter. He also asked Jesus. Then he listened to what Jesus had to say. Jesus taught him that the heart of the law is the love of God above all, and the love of neighbor as yourself. The scribe received this teaching with the enthusiasm of a discovery. Indeed, he said, this love "is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33).

This scribe began with a question, with wonder, with the desire to understand. He brought all his learning and training and experience to that particular moment, not to show himself off, but to focus his attention on a Person whom he recognized as having the truth.

And "when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, He said to him, 'You are not far from the kingdom of God'" (Mark 12:34).

Now there are some very useful words of encouragement.

To make good use of our time, we need to be focused. We also need to know what deserves our focus. The kind of intellectuals we need in this world are ones who seek understanding of the truth so that they might grow in love for reality. We need people who are educated to an attentiveness that enables them to "do God's will," to give themselves and communicate the joy of seeking and discovering the truth to those they encounter in the course of their lives. And, of course, to love God above all.

I want to be that kind of person. The only way for anyone to use time well, is to use it in order to love. And this means loving rightly, giving ourselves to the persons and within the "places" where we are called to real love. Let us not forget that we live in a culture in which "love" has become a buzzword for self-indulgence and dissipation.

And as a "Catholic intellectual," I am an expert at that special rationalizing trick that is used to justify wasting time with worthless "information" -- saying to myself that I need to know what's going on in the world so that I can form judgments and help others understand these things, because that's my vocation. There is some truth to that (the best self-deceptions always have an element of truth to them). But does it justify giving time to reading what really amounts to the gossip of the global village?

For me, its easy to neglect professional research and writing in order to read about the latest scandal between X and Y. I have to ask myself questions and make judgments: "Why am I reading this? What do I really need to know about this? What can I know, really?" We all need to be honest and admit that there is a little gossip monster inside of us. I rarely spread gossip, but I do indulge in "self-gossip," wherein I entertain suspicions about someone and jump to conclusions, allowing superficial details and the tinge of the media to lead me into a (rash) judgment about X and Y and their scandal. The fact is that people have a right to their good reputation even in my own mind! In these matters which are none of my business, I should be seeking as much as possible to preserve their reputation in my own mind.

But instead, I conclude that "X is a creep!" Have I accomplished something here? Am I really "living my vocation," or am I just indulging the old desire to affirm my insecure ego at someone else's expense? Or am I just seeking that weird excitement that people seem to get from the odd spectacle of watching another human being go to pieces? The creepiness of X is relieving my boredom! That's the dirty truth about how I'm really spending my time. Of course, I'll probably spin a theory about what has led X to become such a creep, so that I can clothe the whole business with some sort of intellectual respectability.

But do I have any concrete authority over X? Do I have any possibility of offering him correction and help? Do I love X? If he really is a creep, am I willing to enter into solidarity with him and bear the burden (in some way) of his creepiness? (For this is the disposition of heart that should accompany any expression such as, "I'm praying for him.") I should cultivate such a willingness, especially in a world that forces us to confront the lurid details of the wreckage of so many human lives. I should really pray for them.

But most of this is mental garbage. Perhaps others have the responsibility, as observers of contemporary events, to look at all this stuff and venture a provisional (and charitable) assessment of what might be going on. But that is not my vocation. I have a great responsibility to keep an eagle's eye on the behavior of people for whom I am responsible (and that means above all the five little people who are right under my nose). That is my responsibility, along with taking care of my health, and using the charism that I have been given to help others grow in understanding and love, taking good care to form myself toward this end.

How could there be so much time for the scandals of X and Y? It means that something, or someone, is being neglected.

What can I do, besides get up every morning, pray to God for His grace, renew my firm intention, try to recall it during the day, and then beg God's mercy at night for all my mistakes? And then get up again the next day....

But wait...there's more. There's Jesus. He is the difference. He is present. And to make sure that I do not entirely neglect Him, He instituted the sacraments. He is working His miracles, slowly, in the midst of my messy life. He heals me, He forgives my sins, He unites Himself with my life. And I find that I am surprised, and changed beyond anything I could hope to accomplish myself. All in His time.

His time may seem slow, but it is never wasted.