If you poke around the internet for long enough, you may discover a set of confessions that include the phrase “I think about this a lot.” The objects of this thinking vary widely, from Ina Garten declaring magnanimously that “store bought is fine” (referring, I think, to chicken stock and breadcrumbs) to the shocking fact that the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, born in 1790, has a grandson living today, and the subjects don’t have to justify why they think about all of this “a lot.” They just do.
I imagine we all have things we think about a lot. Because I’m me, mine are mostly things that teachers said or did. I think about a history teacher who gave me a D on an essay once, telling me that I was a decent writer, but that my essay didn’t include any historical facts and was therefore unacceptable. I think about a lecture near the end of college, in which an English professor reduced a room of Shakespeare students to sniffling with a lecture that somehow tied Henry IV, Part I to the growing up we were all going to have to do soon.
These days, I’m thinking a lot about the outdoor instructor at Tauernhof Bible School who, in 2002, told us not to “sleep the time away.” We were on a wooded ridge in the Austrian Alps, and had just been told that for the next 48 hours, we were going to be fasting alone in the forest, with only our thoughts for company and a tarp for shelter. Anticipating that this wouldn’t be good news to some of us, our instructor, Tauernhof principal Phil Peters, gave us this advice:
“You may be tempted to just sleep a lot. Don’t. Don’t wish the time away. Don’t sleep it away. You’ll miss out if you just sleep all day.”
The Upward Bound program at Tauernhof is one that combines wilderness experiences and Bible teaching, and this culminating challenge was just one of the edges of our comfort zones which we had encountered over the course of the summer. Students had faced varied fears and limitations, and we had each grown in some way as a result of staring down an unfamiliar circumstance and stepping towards it rather than turning away. Here, near the end, was one more challenge, and our instructor’s meaning was clear: You can try to avoid this discomfort by sleeping through it, but don’t. You’ll only learn if you keep paying attention, if you stay awake when it’s light, even if you’re hungry and a little cold. It was mindfulness before mindfulness was cool.
I’m not sure why this made such an impression on me when I was seventeen, a recent high school graduate, because the solo time in the forest was far from uncomfortable for me. I’ve never liked napping, so that wasn’t a good option for passing the time, and I wasn’t worried about it anyway. I like being alone, I like the forest, and though I wasn’t wild about forgoing food for two days, I knew I’d be fine. If I’d had to give up my journal and Bible, I might have been a little panicky about all that time without written words, but as it was I shrugged, made plans to read through Isaiah and plot out a novel (like a normal teenager), and crawled into my tarp tent without any complaints. Or, I might add, any terribly memorable personal growth.
Still, I’m thankful for the echoing advice, all these years later, because there have been plenty of seasons since then that I’m tempted “sleep away.” This, I confess, is one of them. Being alone outside for a specific length of time may be easy for this introvert, but these weeks are precisely the opposite circumstances. Like everyone else I’m mostly inside, and not alone, for an indefinite period. Maybe my Upward Bound experience should instead have included a quarantine.
“Don’t sleep these days away.” As sleep is an even less viable now than it was then, I’ve been wondering what this means to me now, even as I think about the words. How could I be sleeping the time away? What would it mean to be awake?
Life has changed for everyone lately, and even though it’s changed far less for me than for others, I notice the difference. Raising two little girls and not working at the moment, I was mostly “staying home” before the government told us to, but we were never doing it so separately. I miss recreational (i.e. not essential) errands with my girls, like browsing at the library or going to the grocery store just for cookies and kombucha, or the the hour before dinner at our local playground when many of our immediate neighbors bring their kids out to play, and the kids all play together while the adults share the genial bonds of proximity and parenthood.
As the magnitude of losses piles up around us, it’s easy for me to dismiss my personal challenges. For some people, this is “just” a season of forced isolation, but many are watching their whole lives fall apart. It’s not by any means equal, this challenge, and nowhere near fair. People have lost jobs, businesses, homes and loved ones, losses that by all accounts are just beginning in our country. I have lost the little adventures and gatherings that give texture to this season of raising small children. I have lost face-to-face relationships and playgrounds. With an income and health, can I really complain?
I don’t know. I haven’t yet mastered the art of feeling what I’m feeling without self-censorship, though I’m trying. What I do know is that constantly telling myself to stop caring that I miss these things, the ordinary delights of another life, is one of the ways that I could go back to sleep right now and miss this whole thing. Fasting isn’t about telling yourself you aren’t hungry; it’s about recognizing the hunger and letting it draw you into closer relationship with Christ.
I’ve been reading Sally Lloyd Jone’s illustrated Psalm 23 book to my youngest daughter before bed lately, and nearly every day she stops on her favorite page, a dim and rainy canyon with a dripping, frightened lamb in the center, surrounded by these words:
Even when I walk through the dark, scary, lonely places, I won’t be afraid, because my Shepherd knows where I am.
I think that my daughter likes the contrast, the dark page and the light sheep, followed by the rescuing shepherd on the next page. But what strikes me today is that the psalmist didn’t stop at the still waters and green pastures, implying that that’s where good sheep would be all the time. Rather it seems that sometimes, for reasons unexplained, sheep find themselves in scary places. What the psalmist doesn’t write is “even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…it’s actually fine, really, because there are probably worse valleys out there somewhere.” It’s no use pretending the sheep aren’t in a real valley. But the sheep aren’t afraid, because they aren’t alone.
I don’t know what you’re facing this week, what you miss most about all the “befores” that this weird time brings out, or what fears or grief this all brings into your heart. All I know is that, for me, I am trying to stay awake for it. I’m trying to see outside the walls of my house, to fully attend to the crisis developing in our nation, to find ways to help those who need it. I’m trying to put my unease in perspective, never shutting my eyes to the scale of human suffering around me. But I’m also trying to be honest with myself, and with God. I’m trying to lament and to rejoice, holding in tension the unease of social isolation and the overwhelming gratitude that I still get to hold my daughters when they wake in the night. I’m trying to remember that this valley won’t be our home forever, and that, even now, none of us is walking through it alone.