“Don't just do something, stand there.”
That was the pithy maxim etched on a plaque on top of Allen's desk.
While this twist on the common aphorism has a widespread life of its own in multiple quarters of human endeavors, I learned it from a man whose life embodied it compellingly.
This call to pre-meditated stillness before or sometimes, in lieu of action was a companion statement to a tasty scrap of Scripture I heard him frequently paraphrase to fuel his prayers and move his Savior.
“Stand still,” he would rehearse tenderly, “and see the deliverance the Lord will give you.”
Allen was close to 40 years my senior. And the concepts he prized can advantage our souls in ways no new app can ever approximate.
“Stand there”...instead of just doing stuff...corrects, not merely our preference toward action, but more importantly, our inclination to give ourselves to anything and everything so long as we don’t have to wait, be still, or be alone with ourselves.
“I Used to Be a Human....”
The warranted handwringing and lamenting of the damage being done by social media and smart phone mania fueled by dopamine addictions are ample. Commentator Andrew Sullivan released a stirring, autobiographical jaunt
last summer that probed the dangers of distraction. It ominously began, “I used to be a human...”
But what’s curious to me is not only that there are now more ways to keep ourselves from ourselves than at any time since folks have enjoyed existence on the planet---but rather, why is it so easy for those ways to work? How can they so easily lure us away from “just standing (or sitting) there?”
One prevalent reason must be, as cartographers of the spiritual life have suggested, that we’ve have had bad experiences with ourselves when alone with merely ourselves.
Finding Yourself Intolerable
Famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung is alleged to have had an overworked minister with jangled nerves come to seek a cure for his internal anguish and anxiety. Jung told the priest to curtail his normal 14 hours of work each day down to a more reasonable 8, then to spend the evening resting in his study.
The minister left and over the next few days reduced his daily hours of work, and then would come home, eat dinner, and spend the rest of the evening in his study, relaxing with a Herman Hesse novel, or with Mozart on piano.
After a week or so, the minister came back to Dr. Jung, and when asked, replied with frustration that the simplistic cure had proven useless. He was still as jumpy and overwrought as ever. Jung, inquired as to the manner of his keeping of the prescription.
When the minister told him of his nightly rest period with classical music or novels, Jung chided, “No, I said to spend the time alone not with music or authors.”
Realizing with fuller clarity what was being demanded, the priest replied, “Oh, you mean to spend my time all alone with just myself? That would be intolerable!”
And Jung is purported to have sagely suggested, “You cannot stand to spend even an hour per night with yourself, and yet that same self, you are willing to inflict on others for 14 hours per day!”
I don’t know if the minister returned.
Having A Conference with Your Own Heart
There can be a terror to having to keep ourselves company. John Flavel lamented this dynamic in his 17th century classic, Keeping the Heart
, where he speaks of those:
“Who cannot be brought to confer with their own hearts: there are some people who have lived forty or fifty years in the world, and have had scarcely one hour's discourse with their own hearts. It is a hard thing to bring a man and himself together on such business.”
But what if there is something useful for you to discover in the midst of that terrifying conference with yourself in solitude and stillness with no dings, emoticons, or push notifications reaching out for you?
What if, once you forded the deep brook of dread you met a lush quietness of soul on the other side? Or if you could shimmy through the initial cave of your discomfort in being with yourself, to find stunning underground caverns to capture your attention?
Aziz Ansari has aptly captured modern “free-time”: “I read a lot on the internet. I feel like I’m on, like, page 1 million in the world’s worst book.” Most of us are reading right alongside him and could nod emphatically in agreement.
But what if there are wonders to discover that you can't read on the Internet?
What if there are matters of such delicate importance that they only surface when all is quiet and still?
Sullivan insightfully suggests:
“The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.”
Wouldn’t it be a pity if by mere neglect and a fear of having conferences with ourselves we strip-mined the conditions most conducive to being a human who knows what she is for and why she is here?
It has, after all, often been in solitude where receptiveness to the most precious realities is most acutely realized.
Believing the Unfamiliar
In The Screwtape Letters
, a senior tempter, out to ruin a Christian’s new faith, reminds his junior tempter, “humans find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes.”
He elaborates... (remember, he’s a devil talking so everything is backwards!):
“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy (God), of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.
The Enemy (God) presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safe guard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's (Satan’s) house.”
I’m glad today for my friend Allen who is safe in God the Father’s house. He had been still enough often enough to know there was way more to “real life” than “a newsboy shouting the paper” or a “No. 73 bus going past.”
And I’m thankful for an exemplar in a noisy, anxious time who had the courage to conference with himself and with the One who offers freely to any who’ll accept, “joy beyond the walls of this world.”
It’s an offer awfully hard to hear when we spend all our time in a virtual world that dulls our hearing with a “wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise.”