Category Archives: The Simple Life
Last night, after I got our two-year-old to sleep, I came downstairs to find my wife watching the movie Marley and Me. It was near the end of the movie, when the family dog, Marley, is showing signs of age and infirmity. His owner knows that Marley does not have much time left, so he takes Marley for a walk through the Pennsylvania countryside. When Marley gets tired, they stop and sit on a hilltop so the dog can rest a moment. As man and dog sit looking out over a peaceful vista, the movie soundtrack becomes touching and sentimental. It’s a signal to movie watchers to pay attention to a special moment—a moment of tenderness, intimacy, and deep emotion.
As I sat there watching that scene, I found myself thinking it would be nice if such sentimental music would play whenever we experience those kinds of tender moments in real life. Perhaps if a soundtrack kicked in whenever we had an opportunity to really connect with someone, we would pay closer attention to those moments, remembering to zoom in for an extreme close-up, gazing at our loved ones with a flattering soft-diffuse filter. Hollywood uses those kinds of effects to manufacture emotion and indicate pivotal moments, but we receive no such signals in our daily lives. We simply have to pay attention, and when we get the opportunity to connect with a spouse, a child, a friend, or a family member, we need to slow down and savor the moment. We need to look them in the eyes, listen to their words, and realize that such moments don’t necessarily come along every day.
Or do they, and we simply miss them because we don’t hear the soundtrack?
A well-known Christian evangelistic tract begins with the assertion that “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I’ve seen it parodied in a variety of ways over the years. For example, someone cautioning Christians not to become overcommitted to church activities changed it to “the church loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” I think we can go even broader than that: everyone will love you, if you follow their wonderful plan for your life. It may be the church, a youth minister, a small group leader, a soccer coach, a ballet instructor, a schoolteacher … you name it. These people and groups all tend to have a wonderful plan for your life, and they will all love you to the extent that you follow their plan.
This is, of course, perfectly natural. The people who devote their time to various activities or ministries do so because they enjoy and believe in them. The athletic coach believes that the sport he or she is coaching can teach kids principles of sportsmanship, fair play, discipline, and endurance. The youth minister is passionate about reaching young people for Christ. The church small group leader is excited about building community and a deeper understanding of the Bible. The pastor is committed to ministering to his congregation and the community at large. All of these people believe in what they’re doing, and all of them need help to accomplish their goals. Coaches need parents to bring kids to every practice, to help with snacks or fundraisers or coaching a particular position. Ministers and small group leaders need volunteers to help with various aspects of ministry, and they need committed “congregants” to show up to receive what they have to pass on. Teachers need parents to donate school supplies, make sure homework gets done, help with class projects or field trips, etc.
All of these people need help, so all of these people need you. They each have a “plan for your life,” a definite idea about how you could best be spending your time, and as far as they’re concerned, that plan is “wonderful.” The more you follow that plan, the more they will see you as the model parent, or parishioner, or volunteer. In short, the more time and energy you give them—the more you help alleviate their stress and overcommitment—the more they will “love” you.
Again, all of this is perfectly natural and understandable. The problem is that you have a finite amount of time and energy, and more “wonderful plans for your life” than you can possibly keep up with. If your family is involved in only a couple of activities, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by the competing demands on your time.
Most of us try to deal with those competing demands by setting priorities and limiting our level of commitment to each activity, but it’s there that the battle begins. Saying to the coach, teacher, or minister that you can only give this much involves the risk that he or she will only “love” you that much. It means you will be viewed as less “committed” or “dependable” than other volunteers who are willing to give more to that particular activity. It means you will feel the guilt of remaining silent when someone says, “Can anyone help with this?”
Ultimately, limiting your level of commitment to the various “wonderful plans” available to you requires an exceptional level of commitment. If you long to be a good mother, it can be tough to say “no” to chaperoning that field trip—particularly when some other mothers are present at every school activity. If you pride yourself on being a good father, it is painful to feel like the only dad who is not helping coach his child’s team. If you long to serve God faithfully, it can be heart-wrending to think you’re not faithfully giving your time to the church. You begin to wonder what those other moms, dads, and churchgoers think of you. Do they question your commitment? Your love for your kids? Your love for Christ? Faced with those self-doubts and insecurities, it can be easier just to “do a little more” than to keep saying no.
Of course, the trouble is that every decision to “do a little more” is a decision to have a little less time for something else, and therein lies the cost of overcommitment. What are you giving up so you can better follow someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life? Are you sacrificing dinner as a family for a fast-food meal eaten on the run? Are you losing sleep so you can get a little more done? Are you becoming increasingly frazzled and unable to focus on any one thing? Are you giving up time in prayer and personal Bible study so you can be there every time the church doors open? These are all very real costs we must pay in order to “do a little more,” and because there are few people pressuring us to eat with our families or get a good night’s sleep, we find it easier to pay those costs than suffer the sideways glances of the overcommitted people all around us.
As the school year begins again, you’re likely to have all kinds of “sign-up sheets” passed in front of you. Let me caution you to think long and hard before you add your John Hancock to someone else’s “wonderful plan” for your life. What you see as a limited commitment, they may see as a pledge of your life, fortune, and sacred honor. Be careful to remain as resolute as Mr. Hancock was in resisting tyranny: namely, the tyranny of the urgent. It’s all too easy to choose the urgent needs of other people’s “wonderful plans” over the truly important things in life. Make that mistake, and you’ll miss the depth of soul and depth of relationship that make life truly wonderful.
Question for my students: What literary device did I use in the last paragraph of this post?
Question for the rest of you: What have you had to say “no” to? How did it cost you the approval of others? Was it worth it?
Update: For more on the need to simplify and focus on what is important, see this excerpt from my devotional, Feet to Follow, Eyes to See.