My father believed the old proverb “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” He didn’t like to see me sitting still, unless it was at the dinner table or in church. Otherwise, he wanted me to be doing something constructive. If he didn’t think I was busy enough, he would ask: “Son, what are you doing standing there with your elbow halfway up your arm?”
That part about my elbow was nonsensical, of course. As a young boy, I wondered if he thought my elbow should be somewhere else! As I got older, though, I understood that the location of my elbow wasn’t what he was concerned about; it was what I was doing with my arms and hands. He wanted my hands to be busy—to be working. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear his voice in my head: “Son, what are you doing, standing there with your elbow halfway up your arm?”
It’s a lesson I learned well. Sometimes, in fact, I think I might have overlearned it. It’s hard for me to press the pause button, much less the stop button, on my life; and it has been far too easy to think of myself more as a human “doing” than as a human “being.”
But, I know that it isn’t really possible to separate being from doing. I am with Aristotle more than Plato on the relationship between the ideal and the actual--between being and doing. Doing expresses being. Doing shapes being. Being inspires doing; being guides doing. They are inseparable. We do who we are; we are what we do. We practice in order to become; we become what we practice. So, what we do and don’t do really matters—it matters for who we are, for who we become, for the people around us, and for the world.
So my Dad’s question stays with me: “Son, what are you doing?” Poet Mary Oliver asks me the same question; here in midwinter, I remind you of the very familiar lines from the last half of her poem “The Summer Day”:
. . . I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Whatever it is we tell ourselves we are doing—whatever it is we say we plan to do—what we are actually doing is whatever we are doing with our moments, minutes, hours and days as we live them. We’re becoming what we practice. What we do here and now both makes and shows who we are. Annie Dillard was right when she said, in The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”
What I hope to do is to let God’s healing and restoring dream for the world determine what I do with my life, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. I want aspiration to become action, inspiration to become initiative, and dreams to become deeds. I want to allow God’s hopes for the world to influence decisively what I do with my time, energy, talents and money; to align my goals with God’s agenda; and to sync-up my plans with God’s purposes. I have a long way to go and a lot to do; but I am learning that the journey is part of the dream.