It has been a few months since I last posted. I’ll be totally honest, despite being in the middle of a four-part series on how to thrive, I went through a small season of Not Thriving. There was something about the congruence of the election, the ensuing verbal- and eventually physical- brawls surrounding the election results, and maybe most of all, the response and reactions of Christians on both sides of the political spectrum, that just about did me in. I’m not going to spend a lot of time unpacking that, because I want you, dear reader, to be able to get something out of this post regardless of your political or religious stance. I’m not in the mood to alienate anyone, especially in this season of profound alienation. But suffice it to say that I found myself pretty overwhelmed with how things played out in our culture, as well as working through some personal matters that were rather heavy around the same time.
The good news is that, despite being a season of intensity both nationally and personally, I have a nice little assemblage of tools for thriving that I would like to share with you. This is a very simple post, in which I praise the effectiveness of simple, old-fashioned practices that will help you build a beautiful life.
- Humility. Make it a mental discipline to stop thinking you can Figure It Out. Re-read Ecclesiastes. Nothing that is happening is really new, except that we might not have experienced it in our lifetime. Reading political and religious commentary can be helpful sometimes, until it gives us the illusion that we have any idea what’s going on. Corrupt people keep being corrupt; innocent people keep being crushed; our hope is God’s restoration of all things, not any particular party or person being in control.
- Read Scripture out loud. I find that there is a huge difference in the impact on me to read out loud and for an extended period of time- 10 or 15 Psalms, for example, or an entire epistle in one sitting. The Bible would largely have been read out loud to (or by) its original audience, and if the Old and New Testament original authors and readers could see us sitting quietly alone with a cup of coffee, reading 1 or 2 chapters and underlining something that makes us feel good, they would see it as being strange and foreign. I’m not knocking the traditional Bible time, but let’s not pretend it’s the normal way Christianity has been practiced for any length of time, or that it can give us everything we need. Our faith needs to be “out there,” not just “in here.” Think about all the sounds drifting through your home- the TV, phones beeping and chirping, kids’ singing toys (the horror!), people coming and going, arguing, laughing, music, the news. These are the things that form our reality, for better or for worse. Make Scripture part of this sonar reality. Make it “out there.” Read it with your family or friends; read it by yourself. But read more than one or two chapters at a time, read it out loud, and read it like you mean it.
- Pursue the analog life. This week I wrote a long letter to a friend, wrestled with my sewing machine until I figured out how to complete a couple sewing projects, deep cleaned my room, and explored new places in the city. This is far from an original idea, but it seems to elude us for some reason. I have become convinced that analog activities need to be the bulk of our life, and the digital needs to slide into the corners. I realize this is impossible if your livelihood is online, and many of us right now, that’s precisely the case. But that makes it all the more important to muster up some energy for analog activities after work. It is so easy to spend your day working online, checking social media here and there, and then when the work day is over, to slip into a comfortable Netflix or Youtube binge until bed. Your whole day was mediated to you by screens. For me it makes a very big difference to start the day with high quality off-screen activities, and then end the day in the same way. I try to always stretch and warm up my body first thing, read my Bible and journal, have a good breakfast, and do something creative before getting onto any screen. At night I do many of the same things. Regardless how many hours I have to spend online, there’s something about beginning and ending my day in the real world that helps keep me grounded.
- Laugh every day. There have been plenty of articles and blog posts comparing how much children laugh compared with adults. This comes home to me often because, having made it a spiritual discipline, I find myself laughing a lot more than the people around me and I often feel quite out of place. Laughing is incredibly good for you on a physical level, but also on a spiritual level. When you laugh, for a moment, you are making a declaration about life: life is good, you are not in control. You can’t laugh when you are full of anxiety, or scorn, or hopelessness. At least for that one moment, your body and spirit are buoyed above one reality to touch a new reality: that we are not in control, life here is often full of absurdities, and everything will be good in the end.
- Do “pointless” projects. In our productivity and bottom-line obsessed culture, the most rebellious thing you can do is anything, for the pure joy of it. As everything becomes increasingly designed to make our lives efficient and productive, we have to push back with moments of inefficiency and enjoyable pointlessness. Knit half a scarf, just because you like going through the motions. Finger-paint and then hang it up, not because it looks good but because you enjoyed smooshing the paint. Listen to a Beethoven piano concerto while dancing around the living room. Lie with your head off the bed and imagine that the ceiling is the floor (something I did often as a child). Write a bad poem. Draw some scribbles. Completing something that you’re proud of is a wonderful feeling that we should all have sometimes. But we also desperately need to enjoy things for their own sake. If everything is purposeful all the time, we have become robots; it means we have given in to a consumerist culture that values our times and actions in terms of what we produced. Rebel!
There are many more tools that are worth mentioning, and perhaps you have some ideas as well (please share if you do!). The underlining principle is that in order for us to stay sane and full of joy during this time of turbulence, we have to be proactive. If you have a passive posture in your life, you are going to end up tired, defeated, stressed, and in a losing battle for your humanity. Thriving takes action. But the actions you take will bring you life. Turn off the news, and read some poetry. Go for a long walk, maybe hang out in a botanical garden or arboretum. Explore a new museum, read a new book, and make the book of Ecclesiastes your friend (it’s not as depressing as its reputation makes it out to be). And read Scripture out loud every day. Start tracking how much time you spend doing analog, life-giving activities, and how much time you spend in the Word, and then compare these numbers to your screen time. Be aware, and push back against the gravity that is pulling you into a passive and depressive state. You can’t help anyone, and you can’t solve any problems if you are passive, sad, and in a posture of helplessness. This will be a gift not just to yourself, but to those around you to stand up straight and live a beautiful life.