November 14, 2013

Hamster Wheel


There was once a cute little hamster who ran on a wheel every day. He ran for about an hour, which was the prescribed length of time for rodents of his age, type, and size. But he liked how that one hour everyday made him feel, so he decided to triple his output. He began running three hours a day on the wheel. He kept a tiny running log to help maintain a sense of progress.

It felt okay running for three hours a day. He thought to himself that he could stay at it. After a while, though, the hamster noticed that he didn’t feel very much like himself unless he was on the wheel all the time, so very slowly over a period of months, without even realizing it, he began to live his whole life and identity through running on the wheel. It eventually became so all-consuming that even when he burrowed down into the wood chips in his cage and closed his eyes at night, all he could see or think about were the metal bars of the wheel, blurring and spinning from the top to the bottom of his vision. He didn’t much care for this, but he also didn’t know what he could do about it. After all, he was a hamster, and hamsters run on wheels.

Although he was fit from so much exercise, the hamster died far too early of anxiety and fatigue. Little hamster EMTs came and applied that blue goo to his chest and tried to shock him back to life with tiny electric paddles, but it was too late. The little hamster doctor pronounced him dead of heart failure. It was late on a Thursday afternoon. He was buried in a shoe box in the backyard by dinnertime.

Are you feeling overloaded? Almost everyone I know is on the proverbial wheel right now, and it’s not even close to Christmas. Practically everybody in my life has said something in the past few weeks about having too many things to do and not enough time in which to do them.

The standard answer to the question “How are you?” used to be, “Fine.” Then it became “Busy.” Now when I ask that question the usual response is, “Okay. Busy. Tired.” A lot of people are tired and busy, but okay in general. (Interesting that being okay equals being busy and tired all the time -- see any problems there?) I guess I’m no exception. A little hamsterish, maybe.

Somewhere along the line, though, it goes from being silly to dangerous, but the problem is we still  think it’s normal, or “okay.” In the absence of a decent coping strategy, it becomes impossible to know when to shut things off, get up and take a walk, read a book, or pick up the phone and call a trusted friend just to hear a different voice. We begin to get all our identity and juice from the wheel, to the point where everything else becomes less interesting. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to a spectacular crash and burn.

In other words, the danger is that we become addicted to and obsessed with doing stuff -- to constantly being in a mode in which all our identity and sense of being becomes rooted in the things we do, the places we go, the ever-expanding to-do list. The good side of this is that a lot gets done (though not always well); the bad side is the warning story about the hamster and the wheel. Quite a situation, and quite a fix, eh?

The only Christly counsel I can offer to speak into this situation is this: God doesn’t want you on the wheel 24 hours a day. Irenaeus, one of our saints, is credited with having said that “The joy of God is the human person, fully alive.” No one ceasingly running the hamster wheel of his or her life, no matter the good intentions, is fully alive. We may be effective or fast on our feet or overly caffeinated or generally solutions-oriented, but we aren’t fully alive. God would not have us confuse the two categories. Irenaeus did not say that “The joy of God is the human person, fully busy.”

To adapt an old saying, being fully alive means being able to STOP, LOOK, and LISTEN; and not just being able to, but actually doing it. Actually stopping ... looking ... listening. Doing all that long enough to see what’s what -- to see God’s “hand at work in the world about us” with gratitude. And after that, not just revving it back up again and hopping right back on the wheel; but remaining in the awareness of God’s presence, and giving thanks for it, without the need to dress it up, describe it, or make complete sense out of it. Just to sit with it, and to love God back because of it.

Episcopalians have an Achilles heel in this department. Our liturgies tend to be wordy; we tend not to take advantages of silence or stillness; we tend to talk to God without letting God have a chance to talk back. We list God’s attributes to God in case God has forgotten. Even on Sundays we can’t bear to think of what would happen if the wheel stopped spinning for even a minute.

What’ll we do about this, then? Three things, I suppose.

The first is to return our gaze to Christ each and every day through daily prayer and meditation. There is no substitute. People who do not take advantage of those opportunities burn out fast, as do whole communities of faith. Anger and resentment creep in like a cold wind that has found its way into a house without insulation; edges fray and go unmended. So, yes: daily prayer. Absolutely no substitute.

The second is a sober and honest assessment of what-all is being done. Having a real and singular focus means letting go of what’s not working; it means putting all our doings and activities and priorities into a great big pile, sorting through them, and figuring out what we absolutely must do. It means letting go of things that aren’t working, and in some cases it means resurrecting old things that could serve us anew. Again, this is true at an individual as well as corporate level.

Third, and finally, spending less time on the wheel means we must seek new ways of being satisfied that we really can do more with less -- that we really can be more effective when we are able to do fewer things better. Our concentration and outlook will improve. The body-politic of the community will respond in the affirmative.

At no point along the way of stepping off the wheel does God abandon us; in fact, God is more palpably present only because we have attuned our inner apparatus so as to better hear God speak, move, and love us.

In the end, if the mouse had decided that its identity could be something other than that of a wheel-runner, it would doubtless have survived to tell the tale (tail?). His is a small but tragic story. We might like to imagine we have more at stake than a mouse in a cage.

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