Last Monday I did a major closet cleanout. It came about in the way all of my big household projects come about: I noticed that there was a problem, muttered something along the lines of I should do something about this at some point, promptly forgot about it, and ignored the situation until it got to the point of ruining my life. On Monday morning I was looking for a t-shirt and my arm got stuck in a jumbled of clothes, and only became more entrenched the more I struggled. I momentarily thought that my closet had become a malevolent organism that was now trying to eat me, like a bad outtake from Poltergeist, and that’s when I decided that it might be time to clean it out.
I ended up stuffing five large trash bags with clothes that no longer fit. It was nice stuff, too: my mom is the master of finding designer clothes at bargain prices, so a lot of the items in the bag were high-quality pieces that I’d only worn once or twice before I lost weight. As I dragged the bulging bags down the stairs, I thought of what a great haul this would be for someone else. I was in the middle of calculating how much time it would take to get to the local Goodwill store and back, when a name came to mind:
Our friend Alicia occasionally makes trips to her home town in Mexico, and in the past she’s asked for any extra clothing or household items we could spare, since she gives them to impoverished people down there. She hadn’t asked me about that in a long time, though, so I went back to my bag dragging.
I heard the name again. I almost considered setting these bags aside for her, but before the thoughts could coalesce in my mind, I was back to fixating how to get this stuff to Goodwill. I had a thousand things going on that day, and was feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t really had the time to spare to do this cleanout, and now I just wanted this off my plate. Besides, I wasn’t going to see Alicia any time soon — who knows how long those bags would end up sitting there if I reserved them for her? I hadn’t heard about any planned trips to Mexico either; for all I knew she’d stopped going altogether because of the drug violence. So I hoisted the bags into the car, rushed down to Goodwill, and hurried back to all the other things on my to-do list that day.
Two days later, Alicia showed up at my door.
She has a cleaning business that we support, and I had thought she might come by to do some work sometime in late April, but I never expected her so soon. I told her it was a pleasant surprise to see her and welcomed her in. After she’d been there for a while, she took me aside.
“Jenny, can I talk to you about something?” she asked in Spanish. I said of course. “Do you have any extra clothes that I could have to take to Mexico?”
I was shocked. It had been so long since this topic had come up. Alicia hadn’t seen my closet, and I hadn’t mentioned anything about my cleanout. I thought of my half-empty clothing racks, the overstuffed bags of clothes at Goodwill, and resisted the urge to smack myself in the forehead. Before I could answer, she explained the sense of urgency I’d noticed in her tone:
She has an aging uncle who lives in a particularly impoverished area of Mexico, and she’s about to go visit him because he desperately needs her help. Though she didn’t say this, I knew that it would be an enormous sacrifice for her to go without work for that time, and that it would take a lot of effort to arrange care for her ailing husband, who is not able to live on his own. But, she explained, this uncle is getting very feeble and has a hard time taking care of himself, and so Alicia and her sister have agreed to take shifts going down there to stay with him.
In the area where he lives, she explained, there is poverty like we almost never see in the United States. Her eyes grew grave for a moment, then she shook her head, as if trying not to think too much about the things she’d seen down there. Many of the people don’t own beds or blankets. They don’t have towels. The kids have nothing to wear but the tattered clothes on their backs. They don’t usually even have beans to eat: a typical meal for a person around there might be a single tortilla. Though Alicia lives well below the poverty line here in the United States, she said she feels embarrassed by her lavish lifestyle every time she goes down there and sees these people who have nothing.
“And so when I can bring them clothes,” she said, “it is a big blessing.” She told me that a few years ago she took a tattered jacket that was in such poor condition that she was almost embarrassed to give it to anyone. A local mother gladly accepted it; when Alicia returned the next year, she was still wearing it.
The image of those five bags of clothes burned in my mind. I was so exasperated with myself I could hardly speak. In the end I dug out some extra clothes I’d planned to keep and passed them on to her, and also asked about offering financial assistance so that she could buy needed items locally in Mexico.
After our conversation was over, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring blankly at the carpet. What killed me about the situation was not that it happened in and of itself, but that I was certain the Holy Spirit had tried to prompt me to save those clothes for the people in Mexico. Those five bags were meant for Alicia; and because I was too focused on my to-do list to listen for the voice of God, I gave them to someone else. I’m sure Goodwill will put them to good use, but their warehouse is already overflowing with clothes. Also, that store is located in a firmly middle-class area, surrounded for miles by other middle-class areas; the people around here don’t need extra clothes like the people in Mexico do.
That Monday morning that I hastily gave away those bags, I hadn’t spent any time in prayer. If I’m to be honest, it had probably been days since I actually set aside time to intently focus myself on the Lord. This has been a pattern for the past few months, and I keep saying that I need to make more time for prayer. Yes, my life is very busy, but if I spent even one-tenth the time I spend messing around on the internet in silent time with God, I could have a pretty solid prayer life. I know this. I’ve known it for a while. But I thought of it in a “ha-ha, I’m so bad about that!” kind of way. In my selfishness, I thought it was just between me and God.
It took the situation with Alicia to wake me up to the fact that when we’re not closely listening for the voice of God, we don’t just miss out on the peace and joy we experience from a deeper relationship with the Lord; we don’t just miss an opportunity to give honor and glory to the One who most deserves it; we don’t just miss out on answered prayers God may have had in store for us — sometimes we miss the opportunity to answer someone else’s prayer.
There’s nothing like daily prayer time. Over and over again, I’ve found that when I make the necessary sacrifices to structure my schedule around prayer (instead of vice versa), my small efforts are repaid tenfold by the tremendous graces I receive.
But I can’t always get there. I usually blame it on not having time, though that excuse is a little suspect since I always manage to find abundant time to mess around on the internet. Anyway, whether it’s due to laziness, fatigue, a lack of faith, being overwhelmed, truly not having time, or some combination of all of the above, there are seasons when regular prayer time just doesn’t happen.
With my personality type, there’s a temptation to let that mean no prayer at all: I am the master at letting perfection be the enemy of the good, not doing anything at all if I can’t do it the “right” way. When I let this happen, it’s always detrimental to my spiritual life. Though I do try to “pray without ceasing,” offering up my actions throughout the day to God, it has not been my experience that that is a substitute for dedicated time spent focusing exclusively on the Lord. As my spiritual director always pointed out, prayer is about building a relationship. Praying as I do my work is like when my husband and I work alongside each other managing the household chaos: that’s a wonderful, necessary part of maintaining a healthy relationship, but if we never spent any time alone, our relationship would suffer.
So I’ve found it to be extremely important to make sure that I’m getting some dedicated prayer time in on a somewhat regular basis, even if it’s not quite as much as I’d like. The most helpful advice I’ve ever come across in this department is from Fr. Michael Scanlan’s book Appointment with God (which is out of print now, but I ordered a copy by phone from the Franciscan University Bookstore). The book is full of great advice about taking your prayer life to the next level, but the biggest thing I took away from it was the idea of making prayer appointments.
Fr. Scanlan points out that when we want to make sure we meet up with someone, we don’t just say, “Yeah, I’ll see you sometime.” Rather, we name a specific time and place the meeting will occur, which allows us to protect that time from getting displaced by our busy schedules.
I already had a routine where each Sunday I’d sit down and write out my weekly schedule, transferring whatever is on my Google Calendar to my handy day planner from Faith Calendars. After reading Fr. Scanlan’s book, I added a new element to this routine: I’d write down my appointments with God too. I’d take a moment to prayerfully think about when and how I should pray this week, then note that time on my calendar. Some weeks I might feel called to step it up and include serious prayer time every day; other weeks I might feel like just once or twice would be about all I could realistically handle. Not only do I note the time I’m going to pray, but the type of prayer as well (e.g. Gospel reflection, Rosary, silent meditation, etc.)
The process is actually fun! I might feel moved to get up early on Tuesday to pray a full Rosary at 6:30, to reflect on the Gospels at 2:30 PM on Thursday, and to wrap up the week with some Bible reading at 10:00 on Friday night. It’s always interesting to see how much of what type of prayer I feel moved to include that week. And when these “appointments” are written on my calendar, I actually tend to keep them.
This idea has really helped me keep my prayer life from fizzling out altogether when I’m in phases where daily prayer time isn’t happening. What are your tips for carving out time for prayer during busy seasons of life?
There’s been a fair amount of smack directed my way on the ol’ internet lately. For those of you who haven’t been following the fun over at my Register blog, there was was this, then this, and this, and this, and this. I could list a bunch more examples, but you get the idea. Between all the posts, their comments, and the comments to some of my posts, I’ve read at least 1,000 nasty remarks directed at me in the past month alone.
A friend of mine recently marveled that I don’t seem bothered by it. Though she would never phrase it this way, I’m guessing what she was thinking was, Jen, you are one of the most prideful people I know, with the fortitude of a bowl of Jello and a disposition toward uncharitableness usually only seen in convicted felons and dictators. You seem like exactly the kind of person who would lose her mind over this kind of thing. So how is it that it’s not getting under your skin?
If that’s what my friend was thinking, she’d be right. I haven’t been too upset about this stuff, and that has nothing to do with natural virtuousness on my part. It’s just that I’ve had various blogs and websites since 2001, so I’ve had a lot of practice with it, and I’ve also been blessed with excellent spiritual direction that’s provided me with invaluable advice. Since anyone with a blog or a Facebook account deals with irritation originating from their computer monitor at least occasionally, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve found helpful:
8 Tips for Keeping Your Sanity with an Internet Connection
1. Learn to let people be wrong
On a practical level, this is probably both the most difficult and the most important tip. There are few things more exasperating than when you write a status update or a blog post and you receive critical responses, especially when they misconstrue your points and accuse you of saying things you never said. There are occasions when it’s worthwhile to defend yourself and clarify your position, but the longer I’m online, the less often I think that’s a fruitful exercise. Seven times out of ten, all your defensive response will do is prolong the argument and draw out new comments that were even more frustrating than the first ones.
The tough part is that, in order to let these conversations drop, you have to let people be wrong. You have to let unfair comments about yourself stand. You have to read harsh words that insult you personally, misrepresent your beliefs, attribute words to you that you never said…and you have to walk away. The good news is that this can really improve your spiritual life if you go about it prayerfully. (I’ll write more details about that in a future post.)
However you go about it, don’t skip this step, because your online interactions will only be peaceful to the extent that you’re at peace with other people being wrong.
2. Be prepared to apologize
…Then again, sometimes it’s you that’s wrong. And let’s face it: For those of us who aren’t exactly spiritual giants, apologizing sucks. It’s painful to say, “You are right, I was in error, and I’m sorry.” Yet the internet can really become a source of stress in your life if you have a fear of apologizing — the constant interaction that comes with new media means that it’s easier than ever to accidentally offend someone, and if you automatically jump into defensive mode every time someone says you’re in error, it’s going to drive you crazy. Per tip #1, oftentimes the right response is no response; but when an apology is called for, it’ll bring a lot of peace to you and to others if you’re able simply to say “I’m sorry” and move on.
3. When you unplug, unplug all the way
I’ve found it to be really important to have hard stops for my online interactions. Most of us have daily “unplugged” time where we just hang out with our families or take time to ourselves, but it’s tempting to keep one foot in the online world, e.g. glancing at email while the water boils for dinner, getting distracted by the ding of the iPhone during prayer time, etc. I recommend scheduling offline time as part of your daily routine, and making sure you unplug all the way during that time — no sneak peaks at your computer or phone.
4. Plan to lose all your followers
For bloggers especially, there’s a big temptation to fixate on the number of people who are reading your stuff. It’s understandable since nobody likes to write into a vacuum, but caring too much can put you on a dangerous path. If you notice a dip in your number of readers after writing a certain post, you’ll feel tempted to avoid that topic in the future, even if it was exactly what God wanted you to say; on the other hand, if some post gets a huge, positive response that nets lots of new traffic, you’ll be tempted to write things like that more often, regardless of whether it’s really fruitful content. I’ve found it freeing to adopt and attitude that goes something like this:
I’m going to think and pray about what I’m supposed to be writing, and write that. It is probably going to be either inane and boring, or offensive and controversial, and, either way, everyone will unsubscribe from my blog in disgust and I’ll have no readers other than a couple of friends who only check in out of guilt.
And then I try to avoid looking at my traffic and followers stats as much as possible. It’s surprisingly freeing to just assume that you won’t gain any new readers, and let yourself be pleasantly surprised if anything else happens.
5. Protect your inbox
For anyone who has blog comments or social media updates emailed to them, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you set up a filter on your email program so that those updates are marked as read and moved to their own folder without even hitting your inbox.
It’s important to control when you step into the online world, rather than having the internet follow you around when you’re trying to do other things. You should be able to get on email without being distracted by the latest comment on your Pinterest pin or some response you got on your Facebook wall. Having it all moved to separated folders allows you to engage in social media on your own terms. You can wait to read through those folders when you’re in a good mood and in a place of peace, rather than having a bunch of updates shoved in your face when you’re simply trying to dash out a quick email to your mom. Aside from helping you not get riled up by negative interactions, it’ll also help cut down the sheer amount of time you spend distracted by online stuff.
(If your main method of communication is texting or messaging instead of email you might set things up a little differently, but the concept still applies: Separate social media feedback from your main methods of daily communication with friends and loved ones.)
6. Put your vocation first
I actually started this post writing about this point alone: Your vocation will keep you sane. The mundane tasks you engage in to serve your family will act as a lesson in humility, a strong dose of perspective, and a chance to reconnect with God, all rolled into one. (And I’m using “family” broadly here; if you’re single or a consecrated religious, that could mean your parish community, your extended family, your order, etc.) There’s something about getting into a heated online discussion, especially if it was triggered by something you wrote, that can make you feel like WHAT I HAVE TO SAY IS IMPORTANT, and I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN DELIVER THIS MESSAGE. Honestly, I doubt Winston Churchill took himself as seriously when giving wartime addresses to England as I have responding to anonymous blog commenters sometimes.
Thankfully, there is a lot of mundane work that goes along with my vocation: I might feel like sitting in front of my computer and saying Important Things about truths that will be lost forever if I do not single-handedly deliver them to the internet, but instead I have to go fold laundry, mix up tonight’s casserole, change the baby’s diaper, read a book with the kids, and sweep the floor. It’s in those moments that I get the much-needed reminders of what the purpose of my life is (i.e. that it does not involve sitting in front of a glowing screen) and where God really needs me. There’s nothing better than humble manual labor in the service of those you love to remind you that your pithy remarks and clever commentary are not the most important things you have to offer the world.
7. Remember that 99.9999999% of the world doesn’t care
One of the most dangerous aspects of the internet, social media in particular, is that it filters for everything that is not about you: You log on to Facebook and see a flood of people who know you; you look at your blog traffic stats and see only other sites that are talking about you; you Google yourself and, with a few keystrokes, the billions of websites that couldn’t care less about you are wiped away, and you see only a list of folks who are thinking about something you did or said. Especially if you’re getting a big response to something you wrote, it’s surprisingly easy to feel like all 5 billion people on the face of the planet have simultaneously stopped what they’re doing to ponder your status updates. And then you’re back in the mode of feeling like you must SAY SOMETHING IMPORTANT because EVERYONE CARES. (You can tell I’m speaking from experience here.)
A good exercise to combat this is to go to some public place (even just driving down a busy road is fine), look around, and remind yourself: Not a single one of these people reads my blog. Not one of these people saw what Anon101 said about how stupid I am. They would all die of boredom if I even tried to tell them about the big Facebook argument I’m embroiled in.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” It’s a harsh but true point that everyone with a blog or Facebook account should memorize.
8. Pray about it…but not too much
Of course we should always speak freely to God about whatever is on our minds, but be careful not to use prayer as another way to fixate on some online situation that you’re attached to. It’s easy to sit there and pray about how to respond to so-and-so, what your next update should be, how to handle that one offensive remark, etc., leaving no time to be still and listen to what God may be trying to tell you. As my spiritual director would point out, God may have a message for you entirely unrelated to this situation, but if you’re not taking time to clear your head and simply listen, you won’t hear it.
I hope some of these tips, hard-won from much personal experience, are helpful to you. What are some of your tips for not letting the internet become a distraction in your life?
I’ve received a lot of feedback in response to my post called Finding God in 5 Steps. Of all the interesting and insightful things that people shared, there was one email that hit me right between the eyes, and made me realize something that I’ve hardly gone a day without thinking about. It was from a young man who fell away from faith for many years and had only recently returned to a close relationship with God. He said that he agreed with what I wrote in that post, but thought that I missed one thing:
There was one thing that was essential to my reversion that you do not mention. One must be willing to give up everything for God…I believe that the biggest problem people have with finding God is that they are not willing to give up earthly desires to find Him. People want the best of both worlds. They want a relationship with God and be able to hang on to worldly desires. I think this is all to often overlooked.
Until I received his email, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me what a key aspect of the conversion process this is; I hadn’t even realized that I went through this step myself. But when I look back, I see that before I could accept the truth, I first had to be in a place of willingness to lose it all.
One of the things that’s different about seeking the truth about God as opposed to, say, seeking the truth about a mathematical equation is that the truth about God is personal and transformative. If you’re seeking the truth about mass-energy equivalence and you discover that e=mc², it doesn’t mean anything for you personally. You don’t need to live your life any differently just because you now know that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content. But not so with God. Because God is the source of all that is good, to know what God is is to know what Good is. Religion has almost always been understood to be about moral codes because a moral code defines what is good and what is not, therefore it defines what God is and what he’s not.
That’s why the search for the truth about God is always personal. It’s always going to bring in all your insecurities, issues and attachments, because your life will be forever shaped by whatever truth you encounter.
Here’s a rough analogy: Let’s say that a woman was seeking God, and she came across a belief system that taught that it’s morally wrong to own a car; something about car ownership, they said, was contrary to God’s nature, and therefore objectively wrong. Naturally, her first reaction was, “That’s absurd!” But then she found a lot of other reasonable stuff in the belief system, so she took another look at that crazy car teaching. To her surprise, it ended up being not as unreasonable as she’d initially thought; in fact, she had to admit that some of the defenses she read really got her thinking.
But in the back of her mind there was always this voice that said, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT A CAR! There was no way. She even thought through it a couple of times: She needed it to run errands, her husband needed his car for work. And she couldn’t just take the kids out of all their activities. Nope. The life that she had carefully crafted would completely fall apart if she gave up having a car.
As you can imagine, this line of thinking would bring her investigation into the anti-car belief system to an end. There’s this idea out there we can will ourselves into automaton mode and make evaluations about any kind of subject with perfect objectivity. But it’s not true (except maybe in matters of math or science, and even then I think our biases come into play more than we’d like to admit). To use the example of the woman in the car, there is no way that she is going to accept the belief system that includes the teaching against cars, even if her rational mind believes that it’s true…unless she’s willing to let go of her car, and therefore her entire lifestyle.
Again, the analogy is rough, but I think it conveys the process that many of us experience on the road to conversion. When I was first researching religion, for example, some of the Catholic Church’s teachings sounded just as crazy to me as the idea of not owning a car. At first I dismissed them as absurd. But even when I came to see that the arguments in their defense were incredibly compelling, I was still not that close to admitting that they were true, because, deep down inside, I knew that they would turn my life upside down if they were.
Around that time, everything fell apart: We faced major financial problems, then medical problems which compounded the financial problems. We had to move in with my mom, which meant that I lost touch with many of my friends because I was in a different part of town. With my health, finances, and social life all a big hot mess, I discovered the freedom of having nothing left to lose. Of course I did still have plenty of great stuff like a supportive family and a first-world existence, but I’d lost so much so quickly that I’d received a crash course in detachment. And that’s when I could finally allow myself to see the truth about God.
And so I whole-heartedly agree that that Finding God in 5 Steps post is missing a step, one that is perhaps the most important: First, you must be willing to lose lose it all.