There I was. Cleaning my desk at 7:00 p.m. the night before my American History final. I sharpened pencils. Organized drawers. Aligned pens. Purged old assignments, notes and other items I felt like discarding.
An hour later, when my desk was spotless … I started cleaning my roommate’s desk. When her desk was sufficiently sterilized, I tidied the rest of the room. Labeled the storage boxes under my bed. Trimmed my toenails. Re-hung a couple of posters. Set out an outfit for the morning. Flossed.
By this time it was well after 10 o’clock. I hadn’t cracked a book yet, but boy, was my room clean and sparkly. Now I was beginning to get a little sleepy. So I made a pot of coffee, sat down at my desk, said “good night” to my roommate (who had just finished studying for the test and was climbing into bed), cracked my knuckles, opened my American History book, took a deep breath and read the first sentence of, say, chapter 12.
It usually took reading that first totally unfamiliar sentence chock full of information I’d be tested on the next morning to trigger the heart-palpitating realization of my current situation: total crisis.
During college, I noticed a keen ability to handle and conquer crisis. The more serious a situation, the more pumped and ready I’d be to rise to the occasion. Sure I was good at procrastination (I actually minored in it) but I also liked to mix in a generous dose of over-commitment and well-intentioned busyness. All this seemed to add up to situations only Wonder Woman could handle. The only things I lacked were her sassy outfit and bullet-resistant bracelets. OK, and her figure.
And it wasn’t just exams. I had a similar approach to mealtime. One semester I scheduled 19 out of the 21 possible meals per week in my campus dining commons. Over each delightful meal (that is if you enjoyed extreme amounts of sodium, fried foods and creamed vegetables) I was either mentoring a younger student, being mentored, talking about mentoring, studying the Bible with a friend, studying for a class with a friend or, well, you get the idea. I truly wanted to invest in and learn from others, but after a few months I felt overwhelmed.
After graduating, I began a career as an advertising copywriter and also dove into ministry with Young Life. It was easy to fall into the old patterns of over-commitment. Instead of leading one group of girls, I led two. One group believed in God and wanted to study the Bible. The other smoked pot and wanted nothing to do with God — but everything to do with me. Of course, I knew they were drawn to Christ in me, and how could I deny them time?
Was I too busy? Definitely. But I had passion and energy! Lives were being touched. Sure, I was familiar with the story of Mary and Martha … but I wondered how Mary could really be doing what was better by just loafing at Jesus’ feet. I know I felt just as overwhelmed as Martha, but somehow I had let these feelings of crisis give my life meaning.
Author Jan Johnson gives a warning to this type of thinking in her book Living a Purpose-Full Life: “Meaning in life is not found in fulfilling divine purposes, but in a relationship with God. The apostle Paul didn’t say, ‘For to me, to live is to preach to the Gentiles,’ but, ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). Paul knew that dying would interrupt his purpose, but he still saw it as gain because his primary aim in life was to know Christ fully.”
Johnson goes on to explain that it’s our relationship with God that feeds our purposes in life — not our fussing or straining to achieve.
Crisis mode. It’s like overdrive on a car. Somehow I seemed to be one of those people able to shift in and out of that gear with ease. Over the years, I’ve met many other strong Christians who were also trapped in this cult of busyness. What were we trying to prove? Why do some people seem to crave crisis?
Cravings are interesting. I’ve heard that if you have an intense craving for sugar, what your body really needs is protein. So if a person is subconsciously drawn to crisis, perhaps what his or her soul really needs is balance. Henri Matisse, an artist I love, once said, “What I dream of is an art of balance.”
You and me, both, Henri. Of course, that’s what I dream of now, in my mid-30s. It took leaving college and entering the real world to understand why balance is a righteous thing. The revelation happened toward the end of my 20s. Basically, I was getting old. And slow. And I couldn’t keep up the pace. I kept promising I could deliver, but I was getting sloppy with my superhuman powers. The buildings I could leap in a single bound were getting shorter. I couldn’t baby-sit my boss’ kids and finish concepting an ad campaign and cram for my morning Bible study like I told everyone I could. And I started disappointing people — especially myself.
Thus, a new crisis loomed. A crisis of faith. All these years I tried to earn God’s love, the love of others, and even of myself by doing amazing things; accomplishing impossible feats. But I was becoming like the person Ralph Waldo Emerson describes who is “too busy with the crowded hour to fear to live or die.”
My friend who watches Dr. Phil a lot always uses one of his phrases on me, “What are you getting out of it?” Meaning, if you’re engaging in some type of negative behavior, you must be receiving some benefit. I guess for me, subconsciously craving crisis made me feel important. Which is a nicer way of admitting that the sin of my ugly pride was fueling my ability to create and overcome crises.
Somehow I was letting what I was doing for God give me purpose, instead of simply being His child. I must have believed that by doing more, I could prove my love to God, earn His love and feel good about myself. The problem is, the older you get and the more your faith matures, the more you realize you’re not a super hero or a super Christian, but just a big, worthless windbag of sin. And what pierces you is not the shame of it all, but the truth that even with all that wind, there’s nothing you can do to further fan the flame of Christ’s incredible and passionate love for you.
While my cravings for crisis are nothing near what they used to be, I still have my moments. Oh, I’ll plan a dinner party that’s a week away and decide this would be a good time to sew slipcovers for all the furniture in my family room. Sure, I’ve never made one before, but how hard could it be? Or I’ll decide to start jogging to get fit. But unlike other normal humans, I’ll decide to train for a marathon, which is now less than three horrifying weeks away. Or, hypothetically, I’ll promise the Boundless editor that I will for sure totally meet the deadline to finish this article on encouraging others to overcome living in crisis. That is, I hope to finish it right after I finish my 18-mile training run and take my daughter to the doctor and return some late books to the library and bake my husband a birthday cake. Let’s just say irony sure is ironic.
Yes, I’m still learning. While I can occasionally slip into the habit of crisis-living, I’m understanding it’s more noble to say, “No,” or “I can’t do it” than to live with unhealthy boundaries that affect me and others I care about.
Now I find that what I crave is balance. And while I still enjoy a heart-thumping mountain-top experience as much as anyone else, I’m finding more meaning in the hike that gets me there. Balance is something I’ll always have to actively pursue. Only now I know this pursuit begins by resting at the feet of Jesus.
Copyright © 2005 Kara Schwab. All rights reserved.