“You’re thinking about stupid things.” This statement, spoken in Alex’s signature western Virginia accent – at once both relaxed as a cat sunning itself on a windowsill and as effortlessly confident as a Presidential Address – is exactly why I love this guy. “So what,” he continues “People are talking about you – people are always talking about me. Most of what they say about me isn’t true, so who cares?”
Without even knowing it, he had hit on what was currently one of my most fervent spiritual disciplines and personal growth efforts – not concerning myself with what people say about me; in other words, not being consumed and distracted by things I simply cannot control. Alex had recognized that glassy eyed look that those who know me well cannot mistake – the look I get when I am having trouble engaging my mind in the moment and answering a simple question someone has asked me. I always try my hardest to answer the question posed, making a sincere attempt at seeming like I am present with them, even though they might as well be talking to a zombie because my mind is in a hot air balloon far above earth struggling with philosophers and ethicists to solve whatever dilemma has taken my brain captive. This is what, since childhood, has happened when a stranger would interrupt my mental acrobats by asking my name or my age – I am usually rendered helpless to answer them for an awkwardly long amount of time. Those who know me best find this to be incredibly charming… I mean irritating. Although, for my part, I insist it is harmless.
This tendency towards rumination may be one of my greatest obstacles to relaxing, for the merit of physical rest or recreation is severely limited when the mind is still hard at work. Couple this with one of the most persistent fears that plagues the feminine mind – ‘are people talking about me instead of to me’ – and you’ve got one brilliantly potent recipe for receiving a molasses slow response from me.
“Stop thinking about stupid things,” Alex’s simple advice for enjoying life is hard to resist; in fact, as hard as my solemn mind tries to fight it, a slow grin crips over my face as I appreciate how steady – and for the record absolutely correct – my friend is.
Not yet at Alex’s level of expertise on enjoying life, I find myself fighting some antiquated, Jane-Austen-inspired notion that a woman’s reputation is all she has – her most valuable asset or her most feared liability. The power of this notion has diminished as women have found increasing freedom and no longer have to hope against hope that Mr. Darcy will show up and rescue them from spinsterhood and its accompanying poverty. Yet, for all of those Elizabeth Elliot wanna-be’s like myself, the idolatry of reputation and the fear of gossip can be a serious bondage – causing us to live stifled, repressed lives in which there is simply too much reading and too little dancing.
This fear is not limited to women, however. I remember having male mentors who would countless times caution me against making some statement or taking some kind of stand with the warnings that I would “get a reputation.” The word ‘reputation’ seemed to bear so much terror for a Methodist pastor in the itinerant system that it seemed they whispered the word with an edge of iciness in their voice that made it seem they were speaking about a newly discovered fatal disease that specifically targeted women in their early twenties with a call to ministry. So much fear seemed to pervade the itinerant culture, that from my earliest encounter with it I have known that to submit to the fear would be to lose who I was.
“Stop thinking about stupid things” – seems, then, to be an excellent new mantra for this journey. Enough of these “stupid things,” I tell myself, you’re living on Eleuthera for goodness sake – it would be a betrayal of the island’s name and its mindset to fail to embrace a little bit of freedom for once in your life.
“Stop thinking about stupid things” is only one of countless life lessons that I owe to Alex, and to our dearly departed Jess (departed from the island not from life – calm down). In between guitar lessons, trips to the clinic, and quality time with the chickens, I have learned the simple pleasure of enjoying another person’s company – without trying to accomplish anything else while doing so. Jess and Alex call this skill “chilling.”
Chilling is never something that has come easy to me; instead “collapsing” is the skill that I have acquired after five years of pastoral ministry with too much isolation, shoulder-crushing pressures, and persistently insufficient resources. The last couple years of balancing two “part-time” jobs, the expectations and pressures became dangerously unrealistic. No lie, I actually kept track of how I spent every moment of every day on my iCal, and there are portions where I did not know what else to write in my calendar but “Collapsed.” That’s right, “Collapsed” from 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm – that was my big event for the evening.
Unfortunately, being burdened with excessively unrealistic expectations, bordering on magical thinking, does not raise red flags or set off alarms for me as a life-long multi-tasker. It is as if the 9 volt battery in some internal alarm died long ago and no one ever found a ladder to climb up and replace it. My willingness to take on a “challenge” borders on the masochistic, still I stubbornly cling to the belief that hope simply cannot be defeated. Even in childhood, I prided myself on my multi-tasking – the ability to do many things at once that is the feared and ancient nemesis of “chilling.” I would find myself fidgeting with some craft while watching a movie as a kid; or end up reading an average of four books a day in fourth grade because the teachers did not know what to do with me when I finished my work so much earlier than the rest of the class. It is decidedly time, however, for my work habits, as well as my fierce understanding of hope, to chill out a bit.
In fact, I have become quite convinced that this whole “chilling” thing that Jess and Alex have been teaching me is very directly related to something God has been trying to teach me my whole life.
“Be still… and know… that I… am God.”
I feel fairly confident that learning to “chill” is an essential step in the process of learning to “be.”