Lent: The Pause and A Nudge

It’s Ash Wednesday, so what the hell are you going to give up?

That’s the way it was when I first entered the catholic orbit of Christianity: What you going to give up? “Hip” priests morphed the gig by going all Robert Schuller positivity and reframed, “Lent is a time to “take on” something new in your life. What are you planning to “take on” during Lent?”

Through forty years of life in the Episcopal church, I have come away with a few wisdom insights in the season known as Lent.

First, I love Ash Wednesday. Maybe it’s the residual Baptist South of God in me, but the Litany of Penitence (pp. 267-269, Book of Common Prayer) is one of the best liturgical forms I know. It leaves no doubt, as the coach says in Remember the Titans., You are kneeling in the goo that is you, perverse, self-centered, forgetful of the other….in a word, human. You are requested to take a good look in the mirror, and if you do, you come away with the recognition that there is work to do. Serious work.

Secondly, Lent gives you a playing field, boundaries, of Forty Days. Within this structure of time, you commit to a plan of self-examination and improvement. You look honestly at your weaknesses, or as they say in the business world of spin, your opportunities for improvement. Lent gives you a spiritual SWOT analysis, google it if you are not familiar, but that would point to one of your weaknesses, or opportunities for improvement. Forty days.

Thirdly, you get to decide how to spend these Forty Days. No government agency is monitoring it. It’s up to you. If you have a spiritual director, he/she may help you structure the time, prompted by their familiarity with your gifts and issues. But they will not, can not, should not monitor your work. For, my beloved readers, you can lie about how it’s going, what you are doing. Don’t ask me how I know this. I am writing after the season finale of Euphoria and I’m feeling a little Rue here.

To make it a Jungian quaternity, let me say fourthly, it is a time of creativity. It’s not giving up chocolates, or alcohol if you are an Episcopalian. That’s for Dry January. How’d that work out for you? Rather, it’s an opportunity to grow. And you might remember my 3-D model for growth:

  1. Grow in depth: dive beneath the surface of the waters of your existence. What are you dragging behind you, what’s weighing you down? What values do you hold deeply that drive, or pull, you forward?
  2. Grow in width: expand the range of who counts, who matters in your world. Who are you consciously or unconsciously excluding from your circle? How do you need to widen your view to include more of God’s Creation?
  3. Grow in height: commit to learning something new about the world we live in. What trail of knowledge did you stop following? What curiosity beckons from your soul when you quiet down long enough to listen?

For me, I make Lent a simpler time, intentionally building in pauses, and nudges. That doesn’t sound overwhelming or scary, does it? It is simply going to use this playing field of Lent, only Forty Days, to try on a bit of self-reflection which leads to self-awareness. And it’s only for Forty Days, so it’s manageable. You can do it! (hear it in my amazing imitation of Adam Sandler’s voice)

So here’s my suggestion in simple terms. You are wanting to set up a system of pauses in your regular day, so you are prompted to STOP, Pause, and reflect. This is called a discipline. If that word scares you, or offends you, simply call it a plan. No big whoop.

Let me preemptively answer your question, dear reader: Why should I do this? What’s the added value to my life? Good question.

My favorite Jungian interpreter is analyst, James Hollis. One of his famous images is of human types getting up in the morning. At the foot of the bed resides two gremlins: fear and laziness. Both gremlins try to convince you to stay in bed, not venturing out into the world.

The Fear gremlin seeks to convince you that the world is a scary place, and anxiety is the natural response to such a threatening environment. Better to stay where you are, where it is safe and comfortable.

The Lazy gremlin is more reassuring in tone, things are fine, no need to roll out of that bed you researched and paid so much for. Take it easy. You can get to these illusory demands tomorrow, or the next day. What’s the rush?

When I first heard Hollis use this image in a lecture, I laughed out loud, for like Larry David in his observational humor, it’s like holding up a mirror to my life. The truth seems undeniable, and my native defense mechanism was to laugh at myself.

But after the laughter abates, what insights might I grab from this brush with Truth?

The first thing I think about is the pace of life, of how fast things are happening, coming at me. The old, worn-out phrase of drinking water from a fire hose seems a bit dated, though still takes me back to the idyllic setting of a sandlot in the summer, playing ball, taking a break to drink from those ubiquitous green lawn hoses that tasted of rubber, but were such a supernatural gift as a young kid. A firehose takes me to news films of black protesters being sprayed by officials to stop their march in Alabama, with enough water pressure to knock them off their feet, sending them sliding. I still recall the men in the old Lee Street barbershop laughing at the sight, slapping their knees. Two images in tension.

However, the firehose is no longer adequate to the “overwhelm” most folks are feeling. Remember back to when you needed to contact someone, you would write a letter, mail it, wait for a response in a matter of days. The operative word here is WAIT. The convenience of email promised to speed up the contact process, and it certainly delivered. However, no one figured on the cost of the overwhelm, the flood of emails. Just one day out of the office literally floods my life with backed-up emails even though I have a prioritization app in play. What is one to do?

My first “overwhelm” came as I took on the role of Canon Pastor of the Cathedral of St. Philip, at the time the largest Episcopal parish in the United States, around five thousand parishioners. The pastoral care had a reputation of being good when it worked, but spotty and inconsistent. Coming from academia, such a huge number was not in my wheelhouse of expertise, so I enrolled in a Covey training program, which was basically time management on steroids.

I loved it, for it gave me a handle on how to overcome the “tyranny of the urgent” that seemed to plague my work. It was a good start to actualizing a system of managing my day, my week, my month, my quarter, my year, my long-term plans and goals.

I wound up teaching the system I evolved to new clergy in the Diocese of Texas as they moved from seminary to their first parish assignments, which can be a rather torrential flood of new work and relations. Many of those students tell me some twenty years later that it was the most practical and helpful training they received. Maybe they are just being nice to an old broken-down priest, but my hunch is that they are telling the truth. Being a parish priest is one of the last truly “generalist” jobs, as one has to do a lot of things well, and managing time becomes critical.

Currently, I coach a number of executives in healthcare as well as a good number of clergy from a variety of traditions and situations. It is my favorite time, giving me the thrill of coming alongside leaders actively engaged in influence, organizing, thinking, communicating, and caring: in a word, leading. When I finish a coaching session, I get the sense I am contributing to the world and am right where I need to be. That’s a good thing.

In this time of “overwhelm”, the rapid change associated with pandemic presenting a variety of new challenges and disruptions to leaders, the need for organizing one’s self is ever more pressing. Add to that the intensity of the work in clinical settings, the record amount of work that seems unceasing, the need for some help is flagged in a variety of ways.

I try to start people SLOW in the installation of a process. People who are already a bit compulsive tend to latch onto any system and outrun the horses. Those who tend to be loose with their schedule may chafe at structure, so I let them wade in slowly. Each person is different and presents different needs, so I wind up customizing a system, plus encouraging a continuous state of improvement of the way that best meets their style, while yielding productive results.

I personally began many years ago with the simple Daytimer system that my friend and colleague introduced me to. It was basically a calendar that I would carry around in a small pocket portfolio. It was an introduction, or rather, an initiation to adulthood, taking responsibility for showing up to where I said I would be.

As I said, as my life became more complicated, so did my system, moving to the Covey organizer that organized by weeks, using blocks of time, and paying attention to the variety of roles one played on life’s stage to make sure one was balanced. The system implied values that one would use in the planning one did. This was my basic plan I used and taught to my students and those that I coached.

Three years ago, one of my goals was to assess the plethora of “organizers” that were flooding the market. I bought almost every system, trying them out and seeing which ones worked, which ones were flexible for customization, which ones were rigid, which ones too complicated, which ones too simple. My personal preference for balance tended to skew my assessment.

I was impressed with the Daily Planner, put out in quarterly books by Michael Hyatt. It is a robust system using quarterly and weekly planning in a convenient single-book format. I have introduced many of my coaching clients to it, and its “ready to go” form is appealing. I used it myself for a number of years.

I wound up going back to my favorite steed, to a loose-leaf format of the Franklin-Covey group, as I keep the current pages in my binder, moving them to a storage notebook for each year. It allows me to add specific sections and forms that are aligned with my work, and to keep my old leather binder by my side. It also allows me to play by developing my own sections, not tied down to a pre-decided format. Everyone to his own taste, said the farmer as he kissed his cow… wisdom from my Texas grandmother.

It really matters less about the format than the fact that you have some system you are working.

The key basic components are to develop the habit of a Pause. How and when you do that is up to you and the variations of your occupation, lifestyle, and personality. Some people have developed a habit of beginning the day with a thirty-minute Pause to review the day ahead, making decisions as to how to approach the work to be done. Some add a significant Pause at the end of the day for a time to review what significant things happened, pausing to list and then journal. Others use that time to plan the next day. The key is to build in a Pause, or series of pauses, to pace your day, your life.

One of the most helpful developments for me was to develop the habit that I scientifically termed, The Big Pause, an homage to the Big Bang. It’s a once-a-week time set aside to review the past week, but most critically, to plan the coming week, employing Covey’s notion of scheduling blocks of time. The “tyranny of the urgent” never goes away. So to increase the odds of my getting to the “big” projects I am working on, I schedule blocks of time in one-hour increments. I literally “write” or draw these blocks in my organizer schedule to protect that time for the focus I will apply. These prove to be the Nudges that re-mind me of my commitments in the swirling vortex of my real life.

So here we go into Lent. Figure out how you are going to structure your Pauses. Then, design how you are going to have Nudges that will trigger your response. This will definitely improve your self-awareness, and may improve your productivity.

But, for those of you who share a Christ orientation, it is an opportunity to “get busy” in amending your life toward that of the Christ. Just before I posted this article, I came upon a quote from St. Athanasius. He said, God became man, so that man might become God. He was talking about the process of development that is a part of being intentional in your life.

Looking to the horizon of your daily experience for opportunities for compassion, care, even love. Being ready to go “the extra mile” in your relationships. Searching for those who might need an embrace of inclusion, those who feel isolated, though you have the gift and burden of knowing that this person is a child of God.

Forty Days of Lent. As I remind people, “forty” is a Hebrew idiom for “a long damn time”. It’s actually the amount of time that Jesus was said to have spent in the wilderness, facing three tempters. You and I have our own particular and peculiar tempters, demons that distract and confuse. But, thankfully, we have our own set of Angels who comfort us, encourage us, minister unto us. You can enter into this desert, wilderness time of Lent with confidence.

I hope you take advantage of this time of Lent. Forty Days to try on a Pause and a nudge.

Do it “your” way, but do it. Blessings.

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