Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seize the day, or not

The New York Times ran an article this week about the human propensity to procrastinate. This wasn't about putting off dreaded yard work or laundry. This was about saving free airline tickets or gift certificates to restaurants or even a nice bottle of wine for "some day." You know that imaginary day that exists in your mind's eye -- the day that's worthy of a nice Merlot or the event that ranks high enough on the celebration meter to warrant a dinner out or maybe even a trip to some exotic place?

I know some of that feeling. Although I'm the type who wears or uses Christmas or birthday gifts in record time -- often the same day they are received -- I am also the type who deems certain things too special for just any old day. Take, for example, the bottle of champagne that has been sitting in our refrigerator for months. It was originally purchased by Dennis to celebrate the completion of my third book (which will be out in October), but we didn't open the bottle that day for one reason or another, and so I decided we'd save it for some other special occasion. Enter a big win for Dennis at work. But we ended up skipping it that day, too, so now it's on tap for tomorrow night, New Year's Eve. I still have my doubts as to whether this bottle -- which is not that extravagant to begin with -- will ever make it into a champagne flute.

From John Tierney's article "Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow" in the Times:

"When there is no immediate deadline, we’re liable to put off going to the zoo this weekend because we assume that we will be less busy next weekend — or the weekend after that, or next summer. This is the same sort of thinking that causes us to put the gift certificate in the drawer because we expect to have more time for shopping in the future.

"We’re trying to do a cost-benefit analysis of the time lost versus the pleasure or money to be gained, but we’re not accurate in our estimates of 'resource slack,' as it is termed by Gal Zauberman and John G. Lynch. These behavioral economists found that when people were asked to anticipate how much extra money and time they would have in the future, they realistically assumed that money would be tight, but they expected free time to magically materialize.

"Hence you’re more likely to agree to a commitment next year, like giving a speech, that you would turn down if asked to find time for it in the next month. This produces what researchers call the 'Yes ... Damn!' effect: when the speech comes due next year, you bitterly discover you’re still as busy as ever."

Boy, have I been there. Any time I agree to a speaking engagement, it seems like a fabulous idea -- precisely because it's usually six to nine months in the offing. But once I'm within one month of the date, I start wondering what I was thinking when I said yes.

As I pondered this strange phenomenon, it occurred to me that this misguided notion that tomorrow will be less hectic than today trickles down not only to our recreational lives but our spiritual lives as well. At least it does for me. Despite being admonished through Scripture on a fairly regular basis to be on watch, be vigilant, get ready since we know not the day or the hour, I manage to convince myself that there is always tomorrow. I don't need to pray now because I'll have more time when my work project is finished or when the kids are back in school. I don't need to meditate or spend time with Scripture or get my spiritual life in order now. I'm far too busy. I'll get to it next week, next month, next year.

"'People can become overly focused on an ideal,' Dr. Shu said. 'Even if they know it’s unlikely, they get so focused on the perfect scenario that they block everything else. Or they anticipate that they’ll kick themselves later if they take second-best option and then see the best one is still available. But they don’t realize that regret can go the other way. They’ll end up with something worse and regret not taking the second-best one,'” Tierney writes.

That's exactly it. I'm waiting for the ideal spiritual moment. That magical non-existent time when the house will be quiet, the office will be neat, the incense will be burning, the icon will be in place...Then, if and when that time ever arrives, I think I will sit down and begin the prayer life I've been longing for.

But, as we all know, those perfect moments don't come around very often. Or, looking at it another way, those manufactured moments we imagine don't come around very often. But the perfect moment? That's ours for the taking whenever we decide to stop and savor what we have right now, be it a dinner out at a fancy restaurant or a few minutes of silent prayer stolen between work deadlines and the laundry.

Carpe diem. Now.


Patrice Athanasidy said...

So true. There are times my kids want to know why we have to go to Mass every Sunday. I always say they somehow find time for other things every week--watch TV, play video games, talk with friends, they better find at least one hour for God too. Usually they start putting their shoes on.

Amy said...

I have been struggling with this very thing for months now. I feel so pressed; my boys are so LOUD, the toddler is so clingy, I'm so tired, someone has to make dinner...when will I get to a place where I have the time and quiet for the type of prayer and reflection I need and desire?

Realizing it isn't going to happen is really hard. And even harder is finding ways to make it work - to just do it. I hate feeling like I'm "squeezing in" what should be the main thing, but it's better than nothing. Right?

deanna said...

I spend so much time saying things like "this week is busy" and "I am swamped this month" that my husband has told me to stop saying it. The reality is that calm, peace, not much to do never comes. At least not to anyone I know.
Somehow I have to stop waiting for the right time and do it now.

Mary DeTurris Poust said...

Thanks for all your responses.
I feel like this is a constant struggle for me -- learning to make time for God in the midst of my busy life rather than waiting for a day that never arrives. I think just being aware of this problem is half the battle. The fact that we're hungry for time with God means we know we need time with God, which is a good start, right? I know that I need to find quiet time especially on the days that are crazy with responsibilities and noise. Maybe we can work on this together over the coming year.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and for visiting NSS. Peace, Mary