Not Stressed?

CJSH.name/stress

You want to know how to deal with stress—if I have anything to tell you. Yes, indeed. Let me pass on some advice I found in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

Oh, I’ve annoyed you. I’m sorry. You didn’t want me to just quote Bible verses; you wanted something more, well, impressive. How about if I tell you about something I’ve taken from my travels in Asia?

I spent a summer in Malaysia, and one of the things I learned there is that people interact differently with time. I don’t know how to explain that experience: it was as if for your entire life the only music you heard was the music of a banjo, so that to you the sound of a banjo was the sound of music. Then, after its quick strumming, for the first time you heard a violin, later to be joined by trumpets and flutes: a whole orchestra of music you had not heard. My experience of Malaysian time was like hearing the first notes from a violin.

What’s special about Malaysian time? Before answering that, I’d like to answer what is special about American time, and describe it as something foreign. If you took geometry and used protractors to measure angles, you may remember how small a degree is. Three hundred and sixty degrees make a circle; if you imagine a cross section of a knife, which would look like a wedge, it’s something like a five degree angle. Putting tick marks on the protractor for degrees is awfully precise—more precise than you really need.

None the less, there are smaller angles, a way to measure even more precisely if you’ve got the tools to do it. You can divide a degree into sixty minutely small parts, called minutes—it would take 300 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife—and then if that isn’t tiny enough for you, you can divide a minute into sixty even smaller pieces, so small that it would take 18,000 of them to make a wedge as thick as a knife. These sort of “second minutes” are called seconds, and if an angle one minute wide is ridiculously tiny, a second is even more ridiculous.

Yet our watches measure minutes and seconds—a digital stopwatch measures hundredths of seconds. In the Bible, an hour is the smallest unit of time. We have taken an hour and divided it into minute parts, called minutes, and then secondly minute parts called seconds. If I were describing my culture’s time sense to an aborigine who understood English, I would say that we have machines that count, and that time is the exact number on a counting machine, and that we are so incredibly attuned to this mechanical counting of tiny time increments that we can ask a machine to cook food for five minutes and count down the last minute in tense agony. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he struggled to grasp an understanding of time that is so exotic.

In Malaysia, as in many non-Western countries, things tend to be slower than in America. However, this is something from a detour from a qualitative difference in the experience of time. We are sharply attuned to time as numbers, minutely measured. To the Malaysian, time fades to the background as you try to be with people relationally: you visit someone and it takes however long it takes. You don’t say “I’ll talk with you for fifteen minutes;” you talk with the person and let the visit itself work out how many numbers a machine would count before you leave. That’s a simplified explanation, and I won’t try to explain the difference between the Malaysian experience of time and what effect a Western visitor experiences. Instead of explaining that, I’d like to talk about what effect it had on me.

That was my first experience living abroad, and it opened a door. It was the first time my culture shifted. It let me realize that I could shift my culture. What? I’m not sure how to explain. I consciously shifted my sense of time in Malaysia, and the conscious shifting didn’t stop when I left. I’ve been interested in different experiences of time since then, and I’ve worked hard to keep a slower, more relational sense of time, where time recedes to the background and presence becomes more important—which has rescued me from the tyrarny of the clock. I’ve picked up things from other cultures—a medieval sense of space, for instance. How’s that?

When I took a class in modern physics, the professor was interested in my assessment that Newtonian physics is basically a mathematical restatement of our common sense understanding of how the world works: everything has its place at a given time; time is straightforward; space is a three-dimensional version of what we study in high school geometry, and so on and so forth. Modern physics is a complete reversal: space itself is convoluted in ways that are hard to understand unless you know advanced math, there is no absolute time and space, there are funny things that happen when you try to measure both where something is and how fast it’s moving, everything (including you and me) is both a particle and a wave, you can have a cat that’s both dead and alive until you look at it… A few years later, I read about medieval culture and made a very slight change to my evaluation that Newtonian physics is a mathematical development of our common sense while modern physics is closer to the result of a contest to see who could find the strangest way of describing our world.

In medieval thought, you don’t have anything like Newton’s one absolute time and space that encompasses everything. There’s an icon of two saints from different centuries talking together, and this troubles the medieval mind not at all. Each place is not one more cell of an immense Newtonian grid, but its own little world with its own internal logic. (Could the medievals do logic? They invented the university, and Aristotle, who defined logic, was to many medievals the philosopher.) This, more than any logical weakness, appears to be why the medievals could look at four places all claiming to have the head of John the Baptist, and be grateful that God had been so generous. This understanding of space may be part of why C.S. Lewis, a medievalist, would write a children’s story that begins to get interesting when a girl walks into a wardrobe and finds that inside is a passage to another world. When I understood this view of space, I revised my estimation that Newton’s physics is a mathematical version of our common sense and modern physics is strange. Newton is not a mathematical version of common sense because my culture’s common sense is a non-mathematical simplification of Newtonian physics. We have the cart before the horse: Newtonian physics shaped what I felt was common sense, and this common sense is something not shared by a great many intelligent people.

I remember one point that I was walking with some friends through a park and felt momentarily disoriented when I saw an American flag. The reason I felt disoriented was that I was looking at a very picturesque pastoral view and talking with my friends, and had become steeped enough in the medieval view of space that I thought of it as its own country. I value that error—even if it was an error—because it showed that the medieval view of space had seeped deep enough into my bones that I could not only talk about it, but see through medieval eyes. Do I think that my culture’s view of time and space is false? I believe they’re a rather small kind of truth—true so far as they go, but not nearly as significant as they seem. The medieval view of space means that when I enter the house of God, I am entering a special place, a sacred space, a place to cast aside all earthly cares. (This way of thinking, by the way, makes a difference in being able to enter another person’s world.)

Some people could probably say nasty things about this, and I have gotten myself in the trouble. But I have made it a discipline to become acquainted with other cultures, past and present, and draw on them. In this discipline, I’ve learned that there are things I can say ‘no’ to, things that don’t have to be. Living under the tyranny of the clock, and a lot of the stress we experience, doesn’t have to be. My time in Malaysia was the key that opened that door.

It would take a very long time to explain, or even remember, the treasures I’ve encountered. Let me mention one. Another practical life skill has to do with technology. Computer hobbyist as I am, I once began a book entitled, The Luddite Guide to Technology. The title was meant less to convey irony than to suggest something: technology costs other things besides its price tag. A cell phone, for instance, means that you are available to people who want to reach you no matter where you are. It also means that you lose your privacy. This is, in fact, the same thing, and it is part of why I don’t own one. Technology has ramifications well beyond what you pray in a store, and I believe there’s a lot to be said for seeing a technology and asking, “What effects will this have?” before asking, “Can I afford it?” The Amish position is a lot more sophisticated than it seems. It’s not, “Technology, bad!” The Amish believe that technologies will impact their community, and they evaluate a technology based on whether it will help or hinder their community. The reason they have buggies but not cars is not that buggies are older than cars, but that buggies give mobility within a community and cars make it all too easy to detach oneself from a community. This is a major difference. I disagree with some specifics of how they take that project, but I respect them profoundly for making that inquiry.

What does this have to do with de-stressing? I read a webpage a while back where the author talked about getting a perspective about 1950’s wages versus 1990’s wages. In both decades, an hour’s work at minimum wage will buy you a burger and fries at a restaurant. Then how has a double income become insufficient for a family? He started listing i.e. what was in a kitchen in the 1950’s versus the many things found in a 1990’s kitchen, and his conclusion was, “We’re not keeping up with the Joneses any more. We’re keeping up with the Trumps.” The spiritual discipline of simplicity provides an alternative to burning the candle at both ends.

When Y2k was approaching, I was profoundly pessimistic. It was my considered judgment that January 1, 2000 would be doomsday. So I was trying hard to prepare. And one of the things that I realized was that if society shut down, there wouldn’t just be the physical challenge of food, drink, and so on. Any physical challenges would be dwarfed by the psychological challenge. So I began doing research.

I asked around on newsgroups; I checked out books on people in wartime and disaster conditions. In the end I received very little in the way of interesting responses; about the most I got by way of response was one person on a survivalist newsgroup saying, “You’re right; be sure to get some board games.” (If I were to be stuck in my house long term, board games would have been profoundly inadequate.) The best I was able to find was material about Christians who had been held hostage. Those who weathered the storm best were those who had a strong devotional life. Spiritual discipline made the difference.

What I have found in my travels, in my reading, in my exploring, amounts at its most basic to spiritual discipline. Sometimes this is quite mundane spiritual discipline. There was a man who told a doctor, “I don’t want you to tell me to stop burning the candle at both ends. I want you to give me more candle.” Part of spiritual discipline is learning what is possible rather than chasing an impossible fantasy—to stop searching for something to give you more candle, and instead learn to put out one of the flames and let the other flame burn for its full length of time.

One of the things I have learned is to guard the inner person. Guard thoughts, beliefs, emotions, desires. C.S. Lewis said that today we only ask one ethical question, or maybe two, out of three major questions the ancients asked. If we use the image of ships at sea, the main question we ask is, “How can the ships avoid bumping into each other?” The other two questions, which were recognised in the ancient world, are “How can the ships be shipshape inside?”, and “Why are they out at sea in the first place?” It’s awfully hard to keep from bumping into other ships if you don’t do whatever it takes to be shipshape inside—even if you can’t do it perfectly (I certainly can’t), it’s better to aim for the sky and miss than aim for manure and hit. Being unstressed has something to do with how I am inside, what care I take of myself, and how I live in the Spirit whose communion makes a world of difference. And this care of this inner person, means sitting and thinking and praying, but it also saying ‘no’ to things that push me too far from calm and quiet: I can’t do this completely, but if I have a choice between working overtime and not having the latest appliances and working overtime, I’ll have a bit of an emptier house. This is also true on a smaller scale: sometimes when I am most desparately locked into “I need to get this done!”, is precisely the point when I most need to take a break. Besides the larger-scale lifestyle choice, there is a vast number of little choices that add up to a lot. Choices like “How long will I work on this task today?”, or “Will I start something productive or procrastinate just a little?” add up to a lot. There’s a saying that procrastination is the thief of time. Putting off work drains your time and mine, doing something that is neither productive work nor refreshing leisure—and steals time from both your work and leisure. Sometimes I’m feeling burned out when I stop work at 5:00, and it’s awfully hard to do anything besides sit in the chair and stare into nothingness. That can be when I most need to play with a pet project, or take a walk, or talk with another person—and I have a choice there whether to act proactively or simply sit, drained. What I need is, on the small scale, a proactive sense of balance that means both choosing to avoid now what is too much for now, and to overcome myself and pour myself into something when my natural bent is to just procrastinate, just a little. He who is faithful in little is also faithful in much. He who is unfaithful in little is also unfaithful in much. This means that if I am going to do a good job on a project, I am not given a choice about whether I will do well on it. I really only have a million little choices about whether I’ll get to work or fiddle with something non-productive, just for a little while.

Another aspect of spiritual discipline that has made a difference is to learn, even if I learn slowly and badly, to stop thinking in practical terms like an atheist. What do I mean by that? (I’ve been a Christian all my life.) Let me explain. One of my friends, who is an administrator, has a paper above his desk that says, “Good morning. This is God. I will handle all of your problems today. Please relax, and enjoy the day.” There’s a big difference between believing that and believing on paper that there is a God, but you have to solve all of your problems on your own, by yourself. One is a situation where you are working with a loving God, and he’s ultimately in charge. The other is one where you’re an orphan, nobody’s in control, and if you don’t get things just right, you’re at the mercy of chance—and if you do happen to get things right, you’re still at the mercy of merciless chance. There’s a world of difference between these two. Believing that you are working with God, he is in charge, and will deal with things in his sovereign manner, means so much less stress.

Now I am learning about another kind of time, liturgical time. This aspect of spiritual discipline surprised me, because I became Orthodox without this being a reason why: I was more humoring the Church than believing its practice was anything good. And I was surprised when it was. In liturgy, time flows, like a stream in a peaceful forest: here it moves quickly, there it flows slowly, there it turns in eddies. That’s how liturgical time flows in Orthodox worship. But liturgical time isn’t confined to Church; there are the cycles of the day, week, and year, and all of these interlock, making exquisite patterns. There is a whole spectrum of interlocking colours. Alexander Schmemann wrote that secular culture has “literally no time”: the tyranny of the clock is a vast emptiness compared to what time should—and can—be. Orthodoxy has this discipline—an hour to begin, a lifetime to master—and it manages to preserve wisdom that has endured for ages and at the same time be about living a life of faith, now. There is the paradox—or at least what seems to be a paradox from outside—of a living anachronism, of something that is in a very real sense ancient, a Patristic culture that is alive today, and at the same time something that is not trying to restore a golden age, because it’s trying to live now.

And to describe Orthodoxy as a culture, in purely secular terms, is to miss something fundamental. The culture is there precisely because it is part of something larger. If you say Orthodoxy is a culture, you have another detail of earth. If you recognize that Orthodoxy brings Heaven down to earth, and draws people to share in the divine life, then you are no longer looking at earth alone. This has profound ramifications for spiritual discipline—for what it means and what it does. It means that spiritual disciplines are not an earthly tool to give you an edge in living an earthly life. They take the life we live and begin to draw it into a Heavenly life that begins here on earth. Someone has said, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” Spiritual discipline isn’t the whole picture, but it does much more than mitigate the worst effects of the rat race. As you begin to walk the path, the Orthodox way, you begin to live the joy you were made for. God touches you so you become more like Christ, and live more deeply, richly, and fully the divine life.

Have I left anything out? Yes, volumes. I haven’t talked about prayers, but praying has done a world of good to me. (And God has also given me many of the things I’ve asked for. But that’s another story.) In prayer, God takes the many requests we make of him and weaves them into something immeasurably greater: communion with him, the Lord and Creator of all that exists. I haven’t talked about the simplicity and “Non-Conform Freely” of Living More with Less, a book that says quite a lot that’s relevant here. I haven’t evenmentioned sacraments. Of the things I’ve met, read, thought about, imagined, and created, the treasures all seem to boil down to spiritual discipline, which is quite a lot. Is there anything that spiritual discipline boils down to? Funny you should ask. I’ve found some very practical advice in a book:

So don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, but your Heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than them? And which of you can add another hour to his life by worrying? You might as well try to add another foot to your height! And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, and how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you who have so little faith? Don’t worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your Heavenly Father knows well enough that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will also be given to you. (Matt. 6:25-33, RSV, altered.)

For Further Reading…

The Powered Access Bible
I made the Powered Access Bible to make it easy to find things in the Bible and read them in context. The Sermon on the Mount is an excellent place to start learning about the foundations of spiritual discipline.

The Philokalia (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4).
The Philokalia is a massive compilation by spiritual masters from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. It is all about the life of discipline, and is second only to the Bible in spiritual writings that have influenced the Orthodox Church.

In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster
I was given this book on my baptism at Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall. It’s a good introduction to spiritual discipline, especially if you find it foreign.

A Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers
This is the prayer book that I use in my prayers. It is part of the liturgical rhythm I am using, and it has prayers of great beauty.

Living More with Less, by Doris Longacre
This is a very simple book that outlines five principles. Where it talks about abstaining from things, this is always in the context of a fuller life. It does a good job of underscoring the joy of spiritual discipline.

Maximus Confessor: Selected Writing, by Saint Maximus Confessor
Saint Maximus Confessor wrote at the end of the Patristic age and was a key figure in helping crystallise the Christian understanding of who Christ was. His writings are slow reading, enigmatic, and full of insight. I’d reccommend starting with his “chapters on love”.

The Orthodox Way, by His Eminence KALLISTOS
The Orthodox Church, also by His Eminence, has become the standard introduction to the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Way is much shorter and says less, but resonates more. Or at least that’s what I’ve found. More than anything else I’ve read, this book answers the question, “What does a life of discipline look like from the inside?”

From Russia, With Love: a spiritual guide to surviving political and economic disaster

How to Survive Hard Times

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Unashamed