a little r & r

A few years ago, when our grandson Finn was “graduating” from pre-school to kindergarten he, along with the other pre-K kids, were asked that typical question adults ask youngsters, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Not unexpectedly, some of the kids said they wanted to be teachers or doctors or astronauts or some other career. But when Finn answered he surprised everyone by saying, “I want to grow up to be kind.”

While I was proud of his answer, I was also caught off-guard by it. I never thought of anyone ever answering this question without thinking of some career they might pursue. I’d always assumed the question only had to do with our profession or job. But Finn has always had a way of thinking outside the box. He was far more interested in what he might BEcome than what he might DO with his life, important as that is.

And doing rather than being has nearly always taken precedence in our society. If you’re like me, I regularly keep a “To Do List,” which I update almost daily. But Finn made me think that maybe I need to start another kind of list, a “To Be List.”

All of us, especially us overachievers, base our identity more upon what we accomplish than who we are. One of the first questions any of us asks strangers is what they “do for a living.” But we don’t inquire “Who are you?” for fear we might cross a line and be intrusive.

When I was in divinity school, I took a class on small groups when the teacher gave us a list of questions. The way we answered these questions indicated whether each of us were “Task Oriented” or “Maintenance Oriented.” By “Maintenance” our instructor meant cultivating relationships and caring for those in our group, while “Task Oriented” had to do with personal achievement. My results showed I was far more “Task Oriented” than “Maintenance Oriented.”

I know I came by my task orientation honestly. Like lots of people born in the first half or so of the 20th century, I grew up in a family that practiced and preached “The Protestant Work Ethic.” Like a lot of Boomers my parents often called me “lazy,” though I thought I was just being a kid. Even the apostle Paul mentions “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

But even I could one-up most Protestants, because of my last name. Names have power and my surname Jensen, pronounced “Yensen” in Denmark, transliterated into English is Jameson, or “Son of James.” But it means “Son of Work.” Remember it’s the Letter of James in the New Testament is which gave us the verse, “Faith without works is dead.” My surname left its impact on me. I spent all my education and ministry working on average of 55 to 65 hours a week and often more. I developed a reputation for being a work-a-holic, an affliction I fear I unintentionally passed onto my kids.

But lately, I’ve found myself needing less doing time and more spiritual and contemplative time. The subject of this article is a result of starting to take more “sabbath time.” Like Finn, I’ve been trying to think outside the box. What if, I’ve reflected, I made a “To Be List,” not just a “To Do List?” What might a “To Be List” look like?

Some ideas I’ve come up with include: How about BEing more perceptive and aware of God’s presence?” Or how about BEing more balanced about how I view both my strengths and weaknesses and embrace how my weaknesses might be God’s opportunity to fill me with God’s strength? How about BEing more honest about my vices and virtues? Or how about BEING a better friend and focus more on the quality of my relationships with my family, friends, colleagues and parishioners than crossing out what I need to do with my day?

Honestly, it’s a whole lot easier and more efficient to talk about “To Do Lists.” Many tasks can be completed quickly. But BEING more than DOING, especially taking care of my relationships, takes far more investment in energy and time.

So, what about you? What would be on your “To BE List?”

We live in an obsessively task-oriented culture. Some of us turn our task-orientation into unhealthy perfectionism. We can set too high of expectation for others too. A lot of times we can go around with a chip on our shoulder and demand of others, “What have you DONE for me lately?”.

Not that our “To Do Lists” are unimportant and not that we wouldn’t do well to add a third kind of list, a “NOT to BE List.” I don’t want to be unhappy or greedy or gluttonous, or…you get the point. All of us, like Hamlet, can find ourselves asking “To be or not to be? That is the question,” and then take the time to figure out how we want to be and not be and what God wants us to be and not be!

But on this week following Labor Day, when we can pause and give thanks that we can DO and not just BE, we may need to re-examine our identities as both children of God and fellow laborers for God’s kingdom and kindom.

You know how we all love babies? And yet, babies don’t do much of anything except eat, sleep, fill their pants, and cry. But we love them anyway just because they are. I think this is how God loves us too: just because we are.

We also don’t ask retirees to work themselves into the grave, quite literally. Entitlements like Social Security and Medicare developed in 1935 and 1965 respectively were created to care for those at a stage of life when our bodies slow down. In fact, President Johnson signed Medicare into law on July 30, 1965, in Independence, MO, to honor the originator of the idea, President Truman, who created the idea of Medicare in 1945. Senior adulthood in retirement almost forces BEING questions upon us over DOING questions, though many senior adults remain very productive and active contributors to society.

Yet, it’s important for us to remember we ARE all human BEINGS, not just human DOINGS and often slaves to high performance and perfectionism. This is the reason taking time for spiritual reflection and meditation is appropriate and necessary in every stage of life, but especially when we are older. Otherwise, we can wake up one day and wonder if we ARE the kind of person both God and we want to BE!

What a Day of Reckoning it can turn into when all we have left in life is listing what we accomplished and regretting what we did not. It can feel like there never was any there “there” in our souls, whose health we neglected all along the way.

May we all take time to take a deep breath and just BE!