What Happened to Downtime?

My friend Gary Maricich calls himself a “Maker.”  And if you know Gary you know the title fits.  He’s a fresco artist who builds ukuleles and makes a mean marinara sauce. Gary works as an art director for a sound company out of Santa Cruz, California.  As part of his work, Gary attends conferences with folks who bring together business and creativity (designers, art directors, creative directors, entrepreneurs).  One of the interesting conversations happening among these folks is the difficulty of creative work in a world filled with constant distraction and interruption (i.e. social media). You can watch this conversation at the99percent.com, with articles on the loss of sacred space, the need for solitude, learning to disconnect for deeper reflection, and how to avoid “reactive work” in order to attend to what’s most meaningful.

What these creatives are discovering is that in order to be fully alive in their work they need rest, downtime, detachment, sacred space, contemplation, solitude, and other disciplines of the spiritual life.  The purpose of these practices, of course, is too increase productivity and financial growth, but what they’re addressing, in my mind, is the loss of soul, of spirit, of heart.  So many of us are suffering from 24 hour work, 24 hour socializing, 24 hour entertainment, 24 hour consumption, etc. and yet, the church seems to be woefully incompetent at addressing this deep spiritual crisis.  Christianity is a spiritual path that teaches presence, how to be present to the Divine Maker, to our neighbors, to our own heart.  And yet most Christian communities and leaders are unskilled in how to practice, yet alone teach, the art of presence, the art of slowing down and attending to what matters.

I overheard a conversation last fall by two “emerging” church leaders at a youth ministry conference that included a presentation on the need for Sabbath rest for teenagers.  As the presenter talked about the deep need for Sabbath rest, one leader turned to the other and said, “The Sabbath is so 1990s!”  He was right of course, there was a big trend in books on the soul, retreats (including a retreat called “Sabbath” which I directed for nine years), spiritual direction, contemplative practice, and seminary degrees in spiritual formation in the 1990s.  It’s also true that in a culture that depends on trends those ideas and practices have lost their (consumer) sex appeal.  However, as I travel the country leading events for youth, parents, college students, ministry and community leaders, I notice a deep exhaustion.  Most people in this country feel completely overwhelmed, and I’m not talking about the economic burden that people are feeling, I’m talking about the systematic removal of all downtime, reflective space, quiet, and sacred space.

What’s particularly discouraging is the people I meet feel resigned to a life in which there is no alternative; a life in which we are all destined to be “distracted from distraction by distraction, ” as T.S. Eliot once lamented.  It is the responsibility of spiritual leaders and communities to teach people how to rest, how to detach, how to grieve, how to recover the sacred.  Until spiritual communities address the need for space and time, the need for reflection and presence, I don’t know how any social, environmental, political, or personal problems will ever be truly addressed.

(For more reflections on the cost of busyness, as well as Christianity as a resource for cultivating rest, solitude, and contemplation see my book Downtime)