It's the end of the day. The dad, tired from a long day at the office, pulls up into the driveway. As he gets out of the car, he immediately notices the sprinkler running, flooding the grass. His front door is hanging open, and the kids are sitting on the porch. The toddler is in nothing but a saggy diaper. All the kids' faces are covered with sticky green stuff, and they're chewing on a popsicle sticks. The children's happy smiles relieve the father's momentary panic, but do nothing to clear up his confusion. Instead, he becomes more perplexed as he enters the house and hears the television blaring in the living room. The sink is piled with dirty dishes. The refrigerator is standing open and milk is pooled on the floor. Now feeling a bit frantic again, he races through the house, calling for his wife, who is nowhere to be seen. At last he finds her, to his astonishment, sitting in bed with a magazine. "What is going on here?" he gasps. She replies, "You know how you come home and ask what I did all day while you were working so hard? Well, today I didn't do it."
I don't mean to pick on dads. We all have our version of doing and doing and yet seeming to have nothing to show for it. When my kids were babies, I would make my to do list at the end of the day, listing the things I'd done, however small. ("Clipped the baby's nails" was an especially big achievement.) That was the only way for me to feel as if I'd accomplished anything at all.
I supposed yesterday that if I didn't spend so much time dealing with my stuff, I'd have more of my 400,000 or so remaining hours to devote to God. It's both obvious and unbelievable that each of us gets the same 24 hours a day in which to do whatever it is we do. I know a man, a pastor, a father of twelve, half of whom are still living at home, who, in addition to the unimaginable range of responsibilities required of a man with a large family and a congregation to serve, spends considerable time in private devotions, devotions with his children, and a daily hour on the racquetball court. I also happen to know that he spends three hours a week taking a night class. "I don't sleep much," he says.
I think about an Abraham Lincoln, a Leonardo da Vinci, or Mother Teresa or Mozart. Think of all they accomplished with their lives, even though two of the four were cut down in their prime!
I, for example, spend hours on e-mail -- three today, to be exact. (In our current day and age, information is yet another kind of stuff we need to deal with.) I have never written a great speech, invented anything useful, sat with the dying poor, or composed as much as a melody, let alone a symphony.
I have pondered my daily 24 hours. I believe that, impossible as it some days seems, they are sufficient to do whatever it is that God wills for me. Few are the days when I feel as though I have spent all of them wisely.
More often, I feel like I am engaged in a constant and dizzying series of trade-offs. I can exercise, but then I won't have time to clean the bathrooms. Or, I can get the shopping done, but then I won't have time to write. Or, more dauntingly, I can read to the kids, but then I won't have time to pray.
How do we prioritize? I have prided myself on putting relationships first. Or so I have imagined. Here's what I've been learning: What I want to think of as love and self-sacrifice for others, all too often, is really a kind of manipulation. If I do things for you, you'll know I love you.
And then you'll love me.
All too often I spend my precious allotment of time doing things for others that they can and need to do for themselves. I want to believe I've done it for their good, but I'm afraid I've done it for mine.
It gets worse. What I find is that I do and do and do and do and do and do and... Phew! Before I know it I'm overwhelmed. Then my head kicks in with judgments that end up flying out of my mouth: Don't you see how much I do for you? I work so hard! I wish you would appreciate it. By which I mean appreciate me.
This year I have resolved to reserve my help for when people ask for it. Even then I intend to weigh whether my help is really what's wanted or just my presence. Sometimes my no is actually more helpful than my yes would be.
As I pay attention, I realize that scarcely a minute goes by when I'm not tempted to "help"; often I only realize what I'm doing when I'm already in the midst of doing it. It's going to take practice to notice before I'm caught in the act.
My hope is that I can learn more appropriately to give my time away. I suspect that with enough repetition, certain things that I do habitually will fall away; someone else will do them, the person to whom those jobs properly belong. Good for them. Good for me.
If that happens, I'll have more time. I won't feel like I need more than the 24 hours we all have. What I have will feel like enough. What will I be able to accomplish then? And still get enough sleep.