It’s good to be back! Michael and I went on our honeymoon two weeks ago, and then last week I was at a conference. So I’m still settling back in and catching up at the office, as I’ve done so many times after one of my trips or retreats, but this time it feels different. I think I’ve gotten reoriented in my relationship to time.
At the conference I attended (which was actually called an “unconference” or UNCO) they had a great philosophy on how we used our time. The group of UNCO leaders were almost anarchist in their commitment to non-hierarchical leadership and non-coercive structure. The week’s program was brainstormed and built on the spot, and nobody was allowed to claim authority because of their expertise. This was refreshing, challenging, and fun. But what I liked most was the often-repeated reminder that each person had to choose for themselves how they spent their time. When we had break-out sessions or “Open Space,” we were always reminded: “Just because you started out in one conversation doesn’t mean you have to stay there. If the conversation isn’t going in the direction you thought or hoped, you can always leave. If you just need a break, you can leave. If another conversation also interested you, and you want to jump over there for a while, you can leave.” This was a similar to the pact Michael and I had made the week before on our honeymoon: we weren’t going to commit to doing anything because we thought we “should,” or because it was on someone else’s list of the top ten things to see in Kauai. Yes, we took our guidebook’s recommendations into account, but what we really did was follow our noses: we did what we wanted to do first, then did what we wanted to do next. This philosophy helped us not to argue (too much) and not to feel pressured for time.
Time is a source of great stress for a lot of us, but it can also be a source of solace. Time is a great equalizer. Some of us have more money, resources, or expertise than others. But nobody has more time. Rich or poor, working part-time or raising five kids, nobody has more than 24 hours a day. You can pay someone to clean your toilet and give you more free choice over the time you would’ve spent cleaning, but you can’t pay anyone to actually give you more time.
Whether we’re rushing through busy work days or sitting on the beach reading a book, it’s good to keep Anne Lamott’s wise words in mind: “You start where you are, is the secret of life. You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next.” Time will keep marching on, no matter what we do, but all we need to do is “the next right thing.” With such a scary world around us, we could be paralyzed by the horrors, suffering, and violence around us — from those suffering or hospitalized in our own community, to those traumatized and grieving this week’s awful attack in New York City. We cannot fix these things singlehandedly. But as the Talmud says, there is always something to do in the time we have: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I can’t possibly tell you what your “next right thing” is now. You may have a lot of emails to read right now. You may need to get up and do some jumping jacks, or tend to someone in your care, or start a big new project, or take some time to read the news and weep. You may feel paralyzed by how many things you could do next. But just pick one right thing, and then do another. God isn’t at the end of some long to-do list; God is with you, right here and now.