Running in Place

In his bestselling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi recounts a story to illustrate the danger of letting something demand “so much attention that it makes us oblivious to the rest of reality.” It happened in the 1950s during Air Force parachute training; one chute failed to open, and the user died in the fall.

Investigation found that the parachute was in perfect working order, but it differed from standard design in one small point: originally intended for a left-handed chutist, it had the rip cord release positioned a few inches farther to the left. Although the instructor had carefully pointed out the handle’s location before the jump, damage to the dead man’s uniform and deep scratches in his chest indicated he had been tearing at the “normal” release position up to the moment of impact. The investigators could only conclude he had panicked when he reached for the habitual spot and found nothing.

Although it’s rare for the situation to be so serious or the outcome so tragic, most of us can identify with the experience of searching frantically for something where we think it should be, only to eventually find it (or have someone else point it out) literally within arm’s reach:

  • Digging for keys fifteen minutes before realizing you’re holding them in your other hand.
  • Turning the apartment upside down looking for a cell phone, then finally spotting it and remembering instantly that you plugged it in last night to charge.
  • Retracing your steps for ten miles and asking two lost-and-founds if anyone has turned in your eyeglass case–then having the second lost-and-found clerk point to an obvious bulge in your pocket.

Going on autopilot is dangerous, if only to the ego. It’s one thing to forget momentarily where something is; it’s another thing to get so busy looking where it obviously isn’t that we forget to pause and consider other possibilities. Usually it happens when we’re too hurried to think: when you have fifteen minutes to make a fourteen-minute trip to the appointment you delayed leaving for because there were thirty e-mails to answer, misplacing your car keys can trigger as high a burst of adrenaline as if you were falling 13,000 feet without a parachute. The adrenaline-dominated brain knows only fight and flight as options, which makes it a valuable ally when enemy and escape route are obvious, but turns it into a traitor when what the situation needs is a moment of intelligent consideration. We lose memory of what we knew five minutes ago, and go blind to what’s in plain view. We go temporarily insane, doing the same thing harder, looking for different results.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? In her society, it was “normal” for women to take care of housework and hospitality, leaving the men to their conversation; so that was what she did when Jesus came to visit. Her sister Mary apparently took a closer look at their Guest and sensed an invitation to break custom and join the “conversation” group, and Martha promptly became annoyed because “I’m stuck with all this work and no one cares.” Jesus had to tell her directly that she was getting so frantic about how things were “supposed” to be, she had blinded herself to the better things He wanted to give her.

If it seems that what’s “supposed” to work just isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to stand still and ask God what He wants us to do. We may well get an “all you had to do was ask” answer.

A Time to Rest

God willing and everything major going according to plan, when you read this I’ll have just returned from two weeks in Estes Park, Colorado. Hopefully refreshed, cheerful, and well prepared to get back to work on Monday.

At time of writing, however, the start of that trip is fifteen days away, and final preparations are proving stressful. It’s a common experience–and returning can be even more stressful. The world can do a lot of “moving on” in two weeks; how many people are really brave enough to stay completely out of touch with the office for that long?

Perhaps it’s not surprising that sabbaticals–paid time off that traditionally lasts for months–are associated primarily with the clergy (though higher educators also make use of them). It takes a lot of faith to believe that your regular world can get along without you for that long, and that you stand a reasonable chance of rejoining it when you do get back.

Yet the concept is rooted in the Bible itself–in the Law of Moses, as a matter of fact. God says in Leviticus 25:2-6, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. When you have entered the land I am giving you, the land itself must observe a Sabbath rest before the LORD every seventh year. For six years you may plant your fields and prune your vineyards and harvest your crops, but during the seventh year the land must have a Sabbath year of complete rest. It is the LORD’s Sabbath. Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards during that year. And don’t store away the crops that grow on their own or gather the grapes from your unpruned vines. The land must have a year of complete rest. But you may eat whatever the land produces on its own during its Sabbath. This applies to you, your male and female servants, your hired workers, and the temporary residents who live with you.”

Talk about requiring faith to take a break. The modern equivalent would be a year off with no pay, no money in the bank, and no credit for the simplest purchases–just the trust that God would provide whatever you needed when you needed it, and not one minute sooner.

It was a test of faith like no other–and the overwhelming majority of Israelites, throughout their long history, failed it and pretty much carried on business as usual during the seventh year. Can we really blame them? Would we be any less terrified at the prospect?

Yet, practically speaking, we have every reason to live by that sort of faith every day. As everyone who follows the news knows, our “safe” everyday worlds of finance, employment, and personal security can be shattered by a thousand possible out-of-the-blue disasters. And we really can do nothing about that. Only God can: and only He knows whether He will give us protection from disaster or strength to come through it.

Only those who trust His care can fully enjoy their time off.

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