What's Tony Thinking

Welcome to Our Recovery Program for Activists


How goes it for you in this time?

I’ve noticed that various characterizations are being offered to help us get a handle on it. “The Great Emptiness,” Or “The Long Silence.” Some days it seems we’ve been sent to a recovery program for activists. Life’s pace and intensity have suddenly been dialed back, way back. “What are you doing today?” “Well, let’s see, I though I might go for a run. And maybe read.”

I remember my Dad, when retired, would sometimes say toward a day’s end, “I haven’t really done a damn thing today.” He did not say it with pride. He, like many of us, measured his days by what he had accomplished. That’s harder now. At least if you are not on the front lines of health-care or something else judged to be an essential service.

I’ve noticed my own need to have something I’ve “done” in the course of a day, something to report or find satisfaction in. “Biked X number of miles today,” I might record in a journal. Or I give Linda a rundown of the various birds species and other wildlife observed while kayaking that afternoon. And I did report to you all yesterday that we now had X number of blog subscribers.

There’s a useful distinction made by spiritual directors between “being” and “doing.” Doing is our calendar of appointments and activities, our lists tasks and projects for a day or a week, the things we can say, at the end of some period of time, that we have accomplished. Being is just that. Being here, now. Noticing our state of being, how it is with our spirit. Now, in the Great Silence or Long Emptiness, is not so great for those of us who are more comfortable doing than being.

But there is an opportunity in it. As Father Steve Paulikas writes . . .

“The images of empty public spaces around the world are shocking outward signs that reflect the interior emptiness so many feel right now. Millions are being deprived of the chance to work, socialize and support one another in person. Physically isolated and emptied of our usual lives, we are being forced to face ourselves in a way that few alive today ever have before.

“Yet the void created by this crisis may be an unexpected gift. This emptiness presents to us a mystical and uncluttered view of life as we have been living it until a few weeks ago. Life will never be the same. Each day, it becomes more apparent that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to consider a fundamental question about the spirit and morality of our way of living: Having emptied ourselves, what do we really want to fill our world with once it is time to rebuild?”

It is a time for reflection and re-calibration. But even that can become another thing on the to-do list, something we “should” accomplish during this time.

My friend Brad Bagshaw related an anecdote I found hilarious. He was on the elevator at his law firm with a younger partner who was juggling his coffee, appointment calendar, keys, phone and brief-case and, all in all, looking pretty frazzled. In response to Brad’s casual, “How are you?,” he answered, “Busy, I’m so busy. I’m incredibly busy. How about you? I’m sure you’re busy too.” To which Brad replied, “No, not really.” His companion on the ride up was speechless. It was one thing to not be “busy.” How can this be? And it was another thing to admit it.

This suggests the shadow side of activism and busy-ness. We justify ourselves by our busyness. There’s a theological term for that. “Works righteousness.” Our works, our activity, makes us “righteous,” at least in our own eyes. “Look at all I’ve done for you, God.” There’s some reason to think God is not always as impressed with ourselves as we are. Too often, our activism becomes a way we assert our superiority to those we judge less productive or virtuous.

So, it’s a challenging time. But Paulikas, and others are right, there is an opportunity in it. I’m trying to take the opportunity to “do nothing,” at least some of the time and see who I am then.


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