It happened the other night.
After spending the last week barraged by constant news of the impending coronavirus pandemic heading our way, rushing out to Boston to help my son quickly pack and fly home as his college suddenly shut down, working overtime on the weekend in order to keep up with my workload, and various meetings at work to determine how best to respond to this crisis, I came home one evening, headed to the porch, plopped myself in the big brown, cushy office swivel chair (now repurposed as a “porch” chair), took in the warmth of the humidity gifted to us by the light drizzle of rain that had visited us earlier that day, appreciated the unusual silence from the lighter street traffic due to “social distancing,” intermixed with the sound of crickets happily chirping away apparently unaware of the potential calamity us humans faced, and for the next hour I thought about…….nothing.
I needed my nothing moment.
I needed my life to be on pause… just for a moment.
And it was good.
Of course, none of us can truly think about nothing; but with no agenda to accomplish, no pressing questions requiring immediate answers and no media to distract, it at least allows for your brain to sort of reset.
And I couldn’t help but walk away from that moment thinking that perhaps that is exactly what’s going on. Perhaps with all of us forced into solitude and with many of us either forced to stop work or to at least change our usual routines, this is God’s way of putting all of our lives on pause.
And not just my neighborhood or my country, but the whole world.
As a meme I recently read on Facebook stated, “I can’t help but feel this is like the earth sending us to our rooms to think about what we’ve done.”
This is not the first time I’ve had to have a “pause” moment. In fact, it’s become a more routine part of my life lately. I’ve shared openly on this blog about some of the mental health crises my immediate family has struggled through. What I haven’t shared is my own mental health crisis I experienced a little over a year ago.
After years of fairly regular blogging followed by writing a book, all while working full time and taking care of my family, I found myself nearly paralyzed. I was feeling completely overwhelmed by life, extremely anxious about every daily decision, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown and total burnout.
I knew what burnout looked like as I’d been there before. As an over-achiever I’d found myself in a similar place at age 25. At that time, I was a full-time graduate student working toward two degrees, employed in a “part-time” job that turned out to be full time hours (in addition to another part time freelance job on the weekends), all while working full time on a student film project. Not to mention that I was married and expecting my first child in a matter of months.
I knew something was off when, tired and exhausted, I completely forgot to go to class for the first time in my life. Feeling overwhelmed and knowing I had to cut back, I turned in my two-week resignation an hour later. My boss took one look at me, saw the desperation in my eyes, and graciously offered the option to quit that very day – so I did. I needed to slow down, pause and reset.
Now, here I was 25 years later, on the verge of the same collapse – perhaps even worse. If I didn’t do something immediately, I was headed toward a complete emotional meltdown. I significantly cut back on social and entertainment media, put myself on hiatus from the news (with all the world problems and politics), changed my sleep time habits, and forced myself not only into a daily regimen of prayer and reflection but also to a strict policy of one day a week doing nothing (a “sabbath” day of rest).
While I have lightened up on the media and news restrictions since, I still to this day do my best to keep a regimen of daily prayer and reflection, as well as a sabbath day (most often on my big brown, cushy swivel chair on the porch) – not to be “holy” but because without them, quite frankly, I cannot function.
I need those moments of pause to reset my days and weeks or I am lost.
Amidst my crisis, I also came face to face with the truth that I struggled with arrogance, and that much of my life had been spent trying to control situations and people around me.
I also came to realize that a lot of my writing had an undercurrent of that control and arrogance. Though I still believed in many of the overall truths I’d been sharing, I knew I needed to significantly cut back in order to reevaluate my motives. To be honest, I’m even hesitant to write these words and share them today for those very reasons.
In many ways, I came to see my near breakdown as a gift to me – a reminder that I don’t have to be, and can’t be, in control of everything. I am not the god of my own world, nor am I a savior to everyone else.
Just as the people of Babel needed their self-constructed tower broken down, so I needed mine. I needed a reminder of who really was in control (hint: it wasn’t me) and I needed a reminder that life can only be fully lived when I stay regularly connected to the one who passionately dreamed up my existence.
But I needed to slow down to do it. I need to be a “human being” rather than a “human doing.”
I’ve learned in the process to read the story of Adam and Eve a little differently – not simply as a story of them but as a story of me, and as a story of what humankind continually does today.
In ancient texts, serpents often represented a “chaos” creature. While Adam and Eve could have chosen to live in the peace of paradise and in intimate relationship with God, they instead became uncomfortable with something that was chaotic in the middle of their garden (good and evil) and sought to gain control over it themselves. The result of their controlling character was endless toil and labor, division between them, and shame and fear that kept them from being able to stay in the peace and presence of God’s voice.
Most translations of Genesis 3:8 tell us that Adam and Eve hid after they “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” However, if you examine the original Hebrew, it could also be translated that they hid after they “heard the voice of the LORD God moving in the wind (or spirit) that day.”
Do we, as humans, continually toil and labor in order to stay in control? Are we constantly divided? Do we incessantly keep ourselves busy with activity (whether constructive or destructive) to cover our anxieties, fears and shames? Do we find ourselves consumed with worrisome thoughts as a means of further “controlling” our circumstances? Have we lost the ability in the midst of that to pause, find peace, and be still enough to hear the sound of God’s voice?
Perhaps “paradise” isn’t as far away as we think if we would just slow down to listen.
I’m sure many of you are thinking, “I don’t know how to even hear God’s voice. I try but all I hear is ‘nothing.””
But I’m not so sure you are as far away from hearing God as you think.
I will not go into detail here, but in my book Rethinking God I share that, upon deeper examination of the original language text, most scripture passages that describe God speaking do not actually indicate a physically audible voice. In fact, there were only two instances where it very definitively was audible speech in the language of all the recipients. In the few other instances where there was audible sound, the speech was indiscernible to everyone but the recipient – frequently sounding more like thunder.
In other words, if you were to peek in on Moses at the burning bush, it’s entirely possible you would have witnessed a barefooted man in deep introspection standing silently before the flames – with no other sounds but the bleating of his sheep in the distance.
This idea is further reinforced by the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb. Often, we are told that this is the story of Elijah “learning” to hear God’s voice. But a more honest read shows that Elijah clearly already knew how to hear his voice. Instead, Elijah had traveled 40 days and nights to the same mountain where God had given the Israelites the ten commandments after a loud fanfare of thunder, lightning and trumpet sounds.
Under “out of control” circumstances, Elijah was trying to recreate the moment. In his anxiety and attempt to gain control, Elijah was looking for God through outwardly miraculous signs and wonders – until God reminded him that he instead was to be found in a “still small voice,” or as some translations put it, a “gentle whisper.” Many commentators share that the Hebrew words indicate a sound closer to “silence.”
In other words, God most often can be heard through silence.
I have been learning over the past year to hear God more and more this way.
Yes, sometimes my conversations with God are full of questions, complaints and pleadings. And sometimes he answers in profound and life-changing ways. While other times I end up with no answers at all and consequently a lot more anxiety.
Other times, though, I think of nothing at all and instead just sit with God in the peace of the moment. I cannot always control the world around me, but I can still find peace by being still.
Psalm 46:10 tells us to “Be still and know that I am God.” In other words, just…pause.
I wish, of course, I could tell you that I do this faithfully. I am still learning. But how much more peace, joy, life could I find – even when there is chaos in the world — if I could find these moments daily?
If you have not tried it yourself, I would encourage you to give it a shot. No matter where you are in your faith, whether a believer in God or not, even for just one time – take just one hour out of your life right now, pause, enjoy the silence, and think of “nothing.”
I do not propose at all that God caused the current virus. And I cannot pretend to think that my words would be much comfort to those who have suffered or lost loved ones because of it. But for some reason God has allowed it to happen.
And what could make us realize we are not in control than a worldwide pandemic that has little respect for borders, shuts down businesses and activities, forces our economies into a near standstill, and practically causes us all to go into “hiding?”
Thus, I can’t help but wonder if it is ultimately a gracious gift to us – our sort of tower of Babel moment that has broken down our self-constructed lives, forcing us into temporary exile and causing us to be more dependent on the One who dreamed up our existence.
There’s chaos in our garden. Once again, we have choice.
Do we keep doing, doing, doing in order to get back in control?
Or do we see it as opportunity? Opportunity to reset our priorities, to reconnect with God, to slow down and be still…
…to put life on pause.
Life on pause in the time of Corona.