Start small

Truth sometimes comes to us when we least expect it.

By that, I mean people whom we barely know can surprise us with words of wisdom, a divine kick in the pants. Without their even knowing it, God uses strangers and acquaintances to speak to us—to answer a question that has mired us down, to rub salve into an old wound, to stir up our passion and restore our vision.

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My mom tells me that on Sunday mornings during the sermon I would scribble on the back of attendance cards. I did this even before I knew how to write letters or words. A love for pen, ink, and paper, for words and stringing together meanings with them, is hardwired into me. Dogs bark, hawks dive, and I write. I guess that’s how it’s always been and is always going to be.

Our natures—our gifts and God-instilled vocations—and how we spend the hours and days God gives us often diverge. I know I should carve out time to spend writing and you know you should be building homes or nurturing children or composing symphonies, but instead of cultivating our callings, we fritter away time sleeping in or reading People magazine or creeping the Facebook profiles of acquaintances. Okay, I don’t read People magazine, but you know what I’m talking about. Everyone eats a different lotus. We all while away our lives, anesthecizing our hearts and minds with television and sloth.

I indict myself.

I watched more movies than I wrote stories or poems even during graduate school. Though my whole reason for being there was to focus on my writing, I got sucked in to watching episodes of Arrested Development and hanging out with friends. Neither of these is evil; in fact, they are both good. Humor and relationships? Two of God’s good gifts to us.

We do need leisure. We most often choose, however, not true leisure, which comes with the deliberate purpose of disconnecting from busy-ness and appreciating simple gifts, but laziness—allowing our passions to gather rust.

For me, this complacency came with a kind of haunting, a specter of guilt hovering in the corner of the tv room, above the notebook half full of unfinished poems. Enjoying our vacations is more difficult if we’ve neglected our vocations. Without work, rest becomes lethargy. Doing nothing is unproductive if that’s all we ever do.

Edmund Burke said that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I agree, but would amend his observation this way: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is a flyspeck of unpracticed discipline.”

Over days, years, and decades, these specks accumulate into a thick layer of dust. We can’t stop sneezing from it, and we can’t keep our eyes open while sneezing. We lose our vision, and with it, our fire. This deadening happens one day at a time, one happy indulgence and one sad lapse at a time.

The answer is not to kill ourselves with productivity but to start small, mustering the tiniest measure of discipline each day. Twenty push-ups. Seven new lines of free verse. Breakfast dishes cleaned and put away. We don’t run marathons or chase giants from the land overnight. Do less rather than more at first, but do something.

What got me to thinking about this was a brief conversation with my friend Will’s girlfriend. Claire was in town from Delaware. We’d only spoken once on the phone but never met. I’d sent her a link to one of my blog posts as an afterthought.

She approached me after church on a Sunday night.

“I thought your writing was beautiful. Really. Thank you for sending it to me,” she said.

“Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Do you write often?”

“Yes, well, not as much as I should. You know how it goes, you have the best of intentions and then the time slips away from you.”

“You should write.”

“I know, I try.”

“No, you really should make a point of it.”

Now, the conversation was getting awkward. I didn’t even know this girl well.

“Yeah, I know. I really need to get my act together.”

“Think about it this way,” she said. “Are you prepared to withhold this gift from people who need it?”

That floored me. I’d always thought about my gifts as belonging to me, mine to do with as my time and desire allowed. When I felt like writing, I wrote. When I felt like taking a two-month break from starting or finishing anything, I wrote nothing. All that is necessary for many people to go untouched, uninspired, unchanged, is for me to follow my feelings, to follow the muse and pick up a pen only when I’m in the mood. I’d never considered that having a way with words was a gift entrusted to me, something which didn’t belong to me but which I was supposed to share.

What if my dad had chosen to love my mom only when he was in the mood? What if doctors showed up for work only when they’d gotten enough sleep? What if Jesus had said, “Gosh, I need a break from being the messiah. I’ll start back again next week when I’m less busy”?

Truth comes at unexpected times from the puzzling lips of strangers:

Are you prepared to withhold this gift from people who need it?

Start small. Stick with it.

[One morning five years from now, you’ll wake up, have a good stretch, and smile because you are living it, you are becoming who you were created to be. Each of us is a promise of who we are meant to become.]

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4 Comments

  1. anonymous
    Posted July 12, 2009 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Wow.

    Thank you, thank you.

    We all need to hear this.

  2. Posted July 16, 2009 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    exactly what anonymous said above. especially convicting to another writer. i’ve recently had eerily similar conversations with my own friends…

  3. Laura
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I am glad you shared this; your thoughts are appreciated, as usual.

  4. Posted July 18, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Sheesh Austin! Enough with the guilt. I’ll blog again soon. Didn’t mean to withhold 😉