Posted June 17, 2015
The Best One can do in the Circumstances
June 15, 2015
Recently I led a weeklong retreat for some sixty people at a renewal
center. Overall, it went very well, though ideally it could have gone better. It
could have gone better if, previous to the retreat, I would have had more time
to prepare and more time to rest so that I would have arrived at the retreat
well-rested, fully-energetic, and able to give this group my total undivided
attention for seven days.
Of course, that wasn't the case. The days leading
up to the retreat were consumed by many pressures in my regular ministry; these
were long days that kept me preoccupied and tired. Indeed, in the days leading
up to the retreat, I had to do many extra hours of work simply to free myself up
to lead this retreat. So I arrived for this retreat partly exhausted and
carrying with me still a lot of pressures from my regular duties.
In spite of
this, the retreat still went pretty well. I had enough energy and focus to make
things essentially work. But it wasn't the best I could do ideally, though it
was the best I could do given the circumstances.
Given that confession, it's
fair to ask: Didn't those retreatants have a right to have me arrive for this
retreat more-rested, more-prepared, and more-ready to give them my full,
undivided attention? Fair enough. They did have that right; except that this
was mitigated by the fact that all the people who are daily affected by my
regular duties also had that same right. They too had a right to my time, my
un-fatigued self, my full energies, and my undivided attention. During that week
of retreat, my office also got second best: I was not giving it my ideal best;
but only what I could do, given the circumstances.
I suspect most
time-management experts, and not a few counselors and spiritual directors, would
tell me that the reason this tension exists in my life is because of my failure
to set clear priorities and be faithful to them and that this sloppy
indecisiveness is unfair to everyone on every side. If am over-extended, it's a
fault in my life, pure and simple, which I have a moral responsibility to
But is it really that simple? Are we really meant to have this much
control of over our lives? Don't circumstance and need perennially trump that?
Aren't the generative years of our lives about much more than ensuring our own
health and rest? Even if the purpose of our own self-care is not selfish but
intended for the better service of others, isn't that service itself the final
culprit? There are needs all over and our resources are finite, isn't that
always a formula for tension?
Circumstance conscripts us and, in the words of
Jesus, puts a rope around us and takes where we would rather not go, namely,
beyond our comfort, beyond always being adequately rested, and beyond always
being in control of our own timetable and energies. Admittedly it's dangerous to
over-extend yourself, except that it's equally, perhaps more, dangerous to
under-extend yourself so as to always have full control of your own energy and
commitments and be always well rested and not over-taxed. We can burnout, but we
can also rust-out.
This, of course, can easily become a rationalization for
not setting proper priorities and for letting ourselves be non-reflectively
buffeted by circumstance. But the opposite can also be a rationalization used to
over-protect our own comfort and rest. That's the tension, and it's meant to be
a tension. Sometimes we overextend ourselves and sometime we under-extend
ourselves. Most of the people that I admire most in the world suffer from the
former, overextension, and, paradoxically, it seems to give them more energy.
Jesus, while cautioning proper self-care (Let us go away by ourselves for a
while and rest. Mark, 6, 31) also tells us that we should pour ourselves out
completely for others without worrying too much about whether this will kill us
I had all of this in mind as I struggled while giving a recent
retreat, knowing that neither the retreatants nor my office were getting my best
energies . . . though both got the best that I could give, given the
And isn't this a good image for the whole of our lives? We have
finite energies, finite time, finite attention, and we are constantly swamped by
circumstance, need, and pressure. There's always something! And so we are often
caught in a major tension as regards our time, energy, and attention. In any
given season within our lives, if we are honest, we might have to say: This
wasn't the best I might have done ideally, but it's the best that I could do,
given the circumstance!
Ultimately this is true for our whole lives. It's
never ideal, but it's the best we can do, given the circumstance. And that
should be more than enough when we stand before our Maker in judgment.