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To Do or Not To Do

. . . that we may reap

Great work is done while we’re asleep.

—Wendell Berry, from Sabbaths

My friend and I are sitting having an expensive lunch in the dining room of the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge.

She’s a Unitarian minister at a big church in Framingham. Stockbridge is about equidistant from where we each live and work.

Stephanie and I met when we were students in a clinical pastoral education program at a hospital in Philadelphia. Clinical pastoral education programs differ a lot from one another, but ours was a hellish stretch of 11 weeks during which we had a crash course in a multitude of health crises, chronic diseases and permanent medical conditions.

We also spent hours each day critiquing each others’ pastoral visits, having group or individual therapy sessions and weathering the feedback from Angela, the fiercely caring, but very harsh Catholic sister who was our supervisor.

Fortunately Angela liked women better than men so Stephanie and I, the only women in the group, had it a bit easier than the guys. Nevertheless, we still worked 60-hour weeks and rotated night duty. The utterly creepy on-call chaplain’s room was in the hospital’s oldest wing, tucked beneath the old belfry, one floor above the psych ward and across the roof from the hospice unit. Some of the toughest nights of my life were those I had to spend in the on-call chaplain’s room.

In those crazy 11 weeks, Stephanie and I became fast friends. Eventually we each left Philadelphia, but over the years, we have seen each other through career crises, a premature birth, divorces, family illnesses and all the rest of life’s stuff. For the first year she was in Framingham, I was living in Boston, so it was like old times in Philadelphia.

But I moved back here years ago. She doesn’t make it to Albany much and I don’t make it to Framingham much. Even finding time for phone calls seems harder and harder. Months go by.

“What was the last thing I had told you about it?” we ask each other, trying to assess just how far behind we are on each others’ stories.

Over lunch we figure out it’s been three years since we’ve seen each other. Three years is a hell of a long stretch not to find time to see a friend who lives a couple hours of easy drive away.

But we’ve got that much-respected, all-American excuse: We’re too busy.

Plus, we work at professions that always involve talking, processing, reaching out, caring. Sometimes it just feels like more work to reach out to a friend.

But that’s a sad state of affairs.

It’s actually pretty amazing that we even managed to squeeze in this lunch.

It was supposed to have been an overnight. We figured we’d talk, shop, eat, get massages, have a real retreat.

But I got too busy. Let’s make it lunch, I said.

I expected her to say something like “Actually, I’ve got so much work to do that lunch makes more sense than a whole night away.”

What she said instead was, “OK.”

Stephanie is coming down the homestretch on a five-month sabbatical from ministry. She told me that when she began her sabbatical she wasn’t even sure she would want to come back to parish life, with its endless little problems and personality conflicts. She thought maybe the sabbatical was a dangerous thing because it would show her just how tired she was from her work.

And in a way, it did. But what truly amazed her, what she never would have thought possible was that the genuine rest her sabbatical was providing was renewing her sense of meaning in the work she does as a minister.

When generating meaning, envisioning new vistas, resolving confusions is standard operating procedure in the work you do, it’s easy to lose sight of the role rest plays in giving life meaning.

A few years back it became fashionable for people in high-stress jobs to come up with plans for “self care” so that their own needs for spiritual and social refreshment—and health—didn’t fall by the wayside. But the problem with a self-care plan is that it is a plan: one more thing on a slate of things to do.

That’s how I’ve been handling things. If it’s not on my to-do list it’s not important. But if I put something I really enjoy on my to-do list it becomes an item on a to-do list.

It’s an unending circle that’s really just a kind of hubris. Wayne Muller, author of Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives writes “Our reluctance to rest—our belief that our joy and delight may somehow steal from the poor, or add to the sorrows of those who suffer—is a dangerous and corrosive myth, because it creates the illusion that service to others is a painful and dreary thing.”

Rest, Stephanie concludes, is misunderstood and underrated.

Maybe she’s right.

It’s gotten late. Stephanie and I have talked for so long that unless I really hurry I’ll get caught in rush hour traffic by the time I get to Albany.

We hug good-bye, promise that we won’t let three years go by without seeing each other. And I know we really mean it.

But even as I’m clicking myself into my seatbelt and turning on National Public Radio for the drive back, I can feel my mind already wandering back to busyness-as-usual.

When will I be back in cell-phone range so that I can check the messages at my office? What day next week looks good for an oil change?

Where can I go to get my computer fixed? What should I say in the vision statement I’m writing? What should I write about in the column?

—Jo Page

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