Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sabbatical musings #3 - A Hopefully Holy Ambivalence

     As the time for my sabbatical drew near, quite a few people asked me if I were excited.  How to answer?  I felt an urge to apologize, for the people asking me I’m sure never had such a nearly elitist privilege as being able to take 3 months away from work – and not just able, but cheerfully encouraged to do so.  I have friends with no job at all; I have a job where I can not work one fourth of the year and my employers seem pleased.  It’s a little awkward to explain.

     Now that I’m off, and gone, I’m studying some other ambivalences that are revealing themselves to me.  Well-wishers have said, I hope your time away is restful.  I haven’t known how to respond to that either.  I’m not tired – or maybe by stopping I’ll realize how tired I might really be.  But my family and close friends can attest that time away with me is far from “restful.”  I’m in some place, any place, and I Google places to see and things to do.  I’m at the ruins of a medieval abbey – and the fact that I revel in strolling through these old stones and imagining monks chanting by candlelight seven centuries before I got there does not prevent me from picking up the pace, checking my watch, and dashing off to the next abbey, or Roman fort, or museum, or seashore vista.  The sunset isn’t a thing of beauty so much as a mandate that we must now stop the dizzying round of touring until morning.

     Should I reprimand myself?  I envy, and simultaneously pity people who go someplace and just sit, or relax.  My faith tradition tells me it is good to be still, to rest (which is what the word “sabbatical” means!).  Yet sloth is a deadly sin; and God did strew this world full of so many wonders that it seems disrespectful not to get out and notice, and marvel.  How to strike any semblance of balance between being still, resting (even if you aren’t weary), letting time pass, taking the opportunity simply to be – and a healthy activity, a robust sense of adventure, soaking in all the world has to offer?  I am driven – and yet as I drive to the next place I discover a joy in the drivenness of which I pray God would cure me.  Ambivalence.

     I find precisely the same ambivalence when I think about working and not working, and being connected and not being connected.  I love work.  I think I’d love work if I’d become a chemist or a lawyer or whatever else I might have become had God not interrupted my meanderings in college.  But doing what I do for a living:  I often say I’d do it for free, but I happily accept a paycheck.  But my work is invigorating, and meaningful.  How lucky:  I get to do something that really matters, or at least I hope it does. 

     So I never find myself itching for a few days or weeks away from work.  I miss it when I’m away.  I’ve never settled on varied hobbies – although I wish could garden or sew or build furniture or hit a golfball straight.  I might confess to being addicted to work.  Is it addiction? Or a deep tender attachment?  I cannot tell, and I suspect God doesn’t mind my confusion.  I’m not ambivalent about work, but my ambivalence about whether I should feel guilty for digging work so enthusiastically rattles me once in a while – like when I go on sabbatical and find myself not working.  I miss the work, but I realize the life of God’s church goes on wonderfully without me, and perhaps even better:  the church I think needs me so much probably grows strong when I can’t be needed.  Maybe I’m not as needed as I’d thought.  I think this is a holy ambivalence, and to resolve the tension would be curiously sinful I think.

     And finally the whole issue of being connected.  Today one can be connected always:  in another country, even on an airplane, I am reachable.  My phone can ring almost anywhere on God’s good earth.  I can text for a nickel, I can see and post Facebook pictures from Europe, I can answer emails in a hotel or on a city bus.  Pundits bemoan this new reality – and I have echoed their sentiments in several blogs (including “Hamlet’s Blackberry”); I do suspect that unhealthy, addictive patterns of thought, self-perceptions, and habits are inevitable.  How many have “liked” my sabbatical photos?  Why hasn’t anybody texted me?  And theologically:  if I am always reachable, if I’m always connected to semi-friends on Facebook or anybody who happens to get my cell number, then I wonder if I am ever reachable by God?

     And yet being connected is the deepest human dream.  God made us not to be alone but to love, to tell stories, to point and share moments, to converse.  I envy people in olden times who travelled, and mailed postcards, which took days to be delivered; a loved one back then was simply incommunicado, and perhaps the heart grew fonder as a result.  And yet that I can respond now to my wife or daughter, that I can tell my son on another continent that I saw something he’d dig:  these must somehow be good things.
     I’m ambivalent, and hope to stay that way.  If I blithely stayed connected and never peeked at the perils, if I never went into any sort of solitude, if I forgot how to be with the person I’m actually with instead of being perpetually distracted by the people I am not with, this would be tragic.  And yet if I dispensed with the smart phone entirely, if I never took advantage of the technological miracles that enable me to speak with loved ones over great distances, if I had no desire to share with you what I see that you cannot see, this too would be sad.  So I live with the awkwardness, the paradoxical confusion.  Maybe I take mini-sabbaticals within the larger sabbatical to be out of touch, and then seize other chances to be back in touch.

     Holy ambivalence.  I think, and hope God is pleased, and that I can grow by being thrown off balance by these ambivalences.