by Chris Banescu –
The realization that something is not right with our lives can manifest itself in various ways. A feeling of emptiness, a bothersome disquiet, or a strange pain, like a deep sadness or a heartache, gradually or suddenly begins to trouble our souls. We feel guilty, anxious, unsatisfied, stressed, or sad even in moments when we ought to be at peace and carefree; when we should be relaxing or enjoying ourselves. For some this pain is only a vague discomfort. For others, including yours truly, the pain can often be intense and unrelenting; sometimes lasting for long stretches of time.
I discovered the reason for this mysterious affliction in the book First Things First, written by Stephen Covey, Roger Merrill, and Rebecca Merrill. They describe this particular grief as the “pain of the gap,” the gap we sense between the compass and the clock in our lives. Every time we don’t put first things first, when we fail to follow our calling and vocation and focus on the most important things in life, our conscience warns us that something’s not right and corrective measures and proactive actions are required.
The book employs the metaphor of the compass to describe what is most important and valued in our individual lives. The compass represents our specific calling, values, vision, most cherished relationships, principles, and mission in life. It embodies the core reason and meaning of our existence.
The clock, on the other hand, symbolizes what we do with, and how we spend our time. It represents our daily schedules, including our work, appointments, commitments, and various other activities.
The warning signs appear when we sense a gap between our compass and our clock. This happens when our time is devoted to activities that don’t support what’s truly important or meaningful in our lives or we don’t spend enough quality time with our loved ones. The symptoms frequently appear when we waste time just surviving, working ourselves to death, or pursuing worldly pleasures or distractions. We squander our precious time on superficial endeavors that do not enrich our lives, strengthen our spirits, build healthy relationships, or help us reach our full potential as men and women created in the image and likeness of God.
Some never take the time to reflect and understand what truly defines the unique compass in their lives. Others lack the required willpower and discipline required to even begin this journey back to normality. Some start and quickly give up when the daily cares and distractions of the world overwhelm and discourage us. Others quit because they are afraid of failure; they give up before trying. But try we must, if we’re to lead a purposeful and meaningful life, in accordance with how God created us to live.
Based on personal experience, ignoring the pain doesn’t make it go away. Burying ourselves in more busy work intensifies the heartache. Leisure activities won’t help. Worldly distractions and entertainment make the pain worse. Intense exercise or sporting activities provide only a brief respite. More rest and relaxation are not the answers either. Prayer and meditation without a corresponding change of heart and direction offer only temporary relief.
Interestingly enough, the more freedom we have, the harder it may be to effectively deal with this affliction. Faced with so many other things we can do and are free to pursue, we easily can, and many frequently do, choose the wrong “cure” or find multiple ways to cover it up and ignore it. We may increase the amount of work, leisure activities, entertainment, amusements, or other diversions hoping to dull the pain. Unfortunately those options offer only short-term relief and fail to address the underlying cause of our angst. We inadvertently widen the gap between the compass and the clock and aggravate our condition. Instead of getting better, we get worse.
Put First Things First
The only effective way to address the root cause and find relief from this spiritual discomfort is to put first things first. We must make a conscious effort to dedicate enough of our time, focus, and energies on those meaningful activities and relationships that bring us closer to our Creator, fulfill our unique vocations, and bless us with true peace, joy, and fulfillment; that help us be “human” in a godly sense.
But how can we pursue such lofty goals? Our hectic and increasingly crowded daily schedules are already full. There aren’t enough hours in the day to finish everything we “must” do and the problems we “have” to tackle. Where can we find the time and energy to figure out how to align our compass and clock and then focus on what’s truly important? We’re already too busy, over-worked, stressed, and exhausted. How do we break the vicious cycles that have become our daily habits and have expanded the compass and clock gap into an enormous chasm?
We must begin in humility. True humility allows us to see ourselves as we really are and see reality as it really is. Humble people recognize that everything in this life is a gift from our Creator. They understand that without God’s energy, wisdom, love, power, and help we are lost. “Be still and know that I am God,” command the Scriptures in Psalm 46. We are called to be still, to let go and surrender ourselves to the Lord’s will. Humility helps us realize that by ourselves it’s impossible to find true meaning and lasting happiness. However, with God’s support “all things are possible.” Only when we admit this truth and place our lives, faith, hopes, and dreams into His hands can we begin to place first things first.
Then, we must seek the daily practice of silence. This is an extremely difficult task in the increasingly connected, busy, noisy, and frenzied world we live in. We’re surrounded by endless distractions delivered quickly via global communications networks available wherever we go. Easy access to instant gratification can condition us to avoid silence, trapping us into a destructive cycle that eventually eliminates all silence from our waking hours.
Yet, silence for our souls is like oxygen for our bodies, it is a basic human necessity. “True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment,” wrote William Penn. Silence facilitates and supports our spiritual life, just like oxygen fuels and maintains the biological processes that sustain our physical bodies. To find peace, we must first get away from any noise and distractions; no email, phone, smartphone, TV, Internet, radio, or interruptions from friends, family, or anyone else. Then we must sit alone in silence for at least 15-20 minutes each day, being attentive to God’s presence in our hearts and listening to that eternal, stronger, quieter, and wiser voice which speaks across eternity. “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls,” observed Mother Teresa.
Silence also helps us with prayer, the next important daily requirement in putting first things first. “When one keeps silent, he is given time and freedom for prayer and gathering; when, however, he passes his hours heedlessly, he does not have time for prayer, and from his heedless speech he also derives different sins. For this reason the holy Fathers placed the virtue of silence at the head of the virtues, for without this no virtue is able to stand in the soul of man,” counseled Elder Ephraim of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos.
Prayer plows the field of our mind and soul, preparing us to receive the inspiration, guidance, and insights needed to find what is meaningful and important in our lives. Prayer opens the lines of communication with our eternal Father. It allows Him to illumine us with His wisdom and understanding so we can identify and pursue the first things first.
Prayer also dispels fears, strengthens hearts, and brings real peace, all key ingredients needed in our daily struggles. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
Self-Examination and Reflection
Once silence and prayer have prepared our hearts and minds, we can being a process of self-examination and reflection. We’re now ready to discover the important first things in our lives. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” observed Socrates. A life lived without proper reflection and meditation can become mere survival, a life “lived in quiet desperation,” Henry David Thoreau once said. A human being without purpose, direction, and meaningful goals is like a ship without a rudder. He wonders about aimlessly, tossed to and fro on the storms of life, without control over his destiny or the course of his life. This is no way to live.
Self-reflection and self-examination will allow us to discern and identify the first things in our lives: our calling and vocation (the most important work we should be doing) and the special and meaningful relationships that truly matter in eternity. These are the things that we must begin to focus on and consider as the highest priorities in our lives.
Courage to Act and Stay the Course!
All our prayers, self-examination, self-reflection, prioritization, and preparations must lead to action. We cannot spend time only contemplating without the proactive and pragmatic steps needed to move us forward. As the old saying goes, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Just thinking and praying about what we should do is not enough. We must get busy working and doing what we know is right.
This is often the hardest part. We must overcome our fears and muster the courage to act and nurture the necessary determination and discipline to stay the course. “Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others. … You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor,” wrote Aristotle. There’s no getting around doing this hard work. We must fight these daily battles and keep our priorities straight. We must find and make time for what is truly important in our lives.
Be ready to struggle, to be tested, to fall, to fail, to begin to doubt. Don’t get discouraged. This is normal. This is part of the process. This is how the saw is sharpened and the steel is hardened. There is no other way. Don’t give up. Keep going. Stay the course! Always remember this encouragement from Scriptures: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).