For Which Generation? On Telos and Techne

 “Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil.”  -Carl Jung

Six kids?!?  You must be SO BUSY!

It’s said with wonder, with a smile, and nodding knowingness.  Everyone’s busy, so I must be doubly, or triply, so with such a sizable family.  Despite every inclination to just leave it at that, I cannot seem to help my contradictory self.  “I’m really not.  We live an intentionally slower-paced life with few outside commitments.”  This does not compute generally with whomever I’m making small talk.  But, it’s okay, they have to run anyways; busy day ahead!

I learned a new word the other day as I read You Are What You Love by James Smith:  telos.  A Greek noun, it means an end, purpose, or goal; an ultimate aim.  He writes convincingly that our telos affects everything, even if it’s not what we think it is.  What do we really aim at? What do we really love?  We may think that we’d love to have a beautiful and healthy body, but our true telos may have more to do with the tasty pleasure of eating donuts and the comfort of sedentary habits.

I wondered; what do I love?  What am I aiming my life towards?  And what is my techne (another Greek word, meaning our rational method in accomplishing our aim) for getting there?  And why is the techne that is assumed to be universal a breathless and harried busyness?  What telos requires such haste and incessant activity?

A baby is born and the parents begin to dutifully schedule portrait sessions, play dates, and provide heaps of stimulating “educational” toys.  There’s childcare to arrange, and baby is bundled up and ready for the day before the sun rises.  Life is a series of being dropped off and picked up, shuttled about from car seat to stroller to car seat to bed.  As toddlerhood approaches the parents feel this unsettling pressure; will their child be ready for preschool?  Which preschool is best?  Maybe a parent will pick up another job to pay tuition at a promising one.  This is only the beginning, but the telos is in full swing, the techne chugging along doggedly.  The comforting thing is that everyone else looks just as frantic, just as hurried, just as worried.  Until one attempts to commiserate with an odd duck like me, that is.

As the child enters elementary school he will be shuttled from school to after school care, to music lessons, to sports practices, to youth events at church, to karate, to dance, etc.  I know many families who only eat dinner together about once a week due to various activities that keep them orbiting the home, landing at different intervals for a hurried snack and a change of uniform.  Saturdays and Sundays are not exempt from this quick, packed lifestyle.  The two most common words associated with this time of life when I speak with my peers are “busy” and “stress”.  What is the end, the telos, of all this hustle?

A well-rounded adolescent, with success in one or many specializations, be they academic, musical, or sports-related, and a promising list of accomplishments to be listed on college applications?  Perhaps.  I think the telos reaches further as soon as they get accepted to a college; that they’ll pick an impressive major (or double major preferably); that they’ll graduate with honors, that they’ll land a lucrative and fulfilling job, that they’ll meet an equally impressive mate, and that they then can start a family.  Having that baby, then the parents can bring their telos to bear on that child; schedule the portraits, buy the Baby Einstein books, get the ball rolling towards laudable success.

This telos demands an incredible amount of busyness.  Such investment in the success of our offspring has never before been seen in history.  Family life has become bewilderingly child-centric, parents giving up their own interests and pursuits as they struggle just to meet the demands of their childrens’ schedules.  Is the cost worth it?  If you’re not willing to pay the price, can your children still have a chance at a successful life?  And what of your own life?  Can it be enjoyed or is it too laid upon the altar of busyness?  Are we always to be simply enduring the present in order to achieve the future?

This brings me back to my techne:  slow, unhurried, thoroughly enjoyed life, each day, each hour, for its own sake, aiming towards holiness in the long run by faithfulness and growth in the everyday.  Though I cannot guarantee the future success of my children (however one may define that), I can give us the space and time to enjoy life right now; splashing in today’s rain puddles, examining this year’s butterflies and roses, going on long walks and feeling this day’s fresh air filling our lungs.  Savoring bites of food, starting the day slowly with cuddles, spending a good half hour staring at my newborn’s tiny pink face, and taking my older children out for one-on-one dates where we linger over ethnic foods and connect deeply; these are my techne for not missing the moments that can’t be put off until later, for not missing the now.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for spurts of busyness; right before an opening night of a play, or a championship game, or helping with charitable events.  Feeling a bit breathless and harried is appropriate for such; it’s a special time given special energy; it can be exhilarating, but to live every single day that way?  I’d argue that such effort shoots right past its own aim, its own telos; it hurries right past the life it meant to live so well.

So I ask, for whom is this offering of hustling, bustling, hurry?  For which generation?  It seems we are rushed about all our lives so that we can raise children whom we rush about so that they can raise children whom they can rush about.  Is this life?  When are we allowed to actually enjoy it?  On a yearly vacation, packed with activity itself?  When we retire and our bodies which we’ve neglected through inattention to them are ailing and out of shape?

I do not claim to be a better parent than anyone; God knows and I know the limitations and deficiencies I bring to the table, and trust me when I say that I esteem the great love and care that undergird the frantic scheduling folks submit themselves to.  I seek only to sound a bit of an alarm, that we might miss life if we sprint through it.  We can’t go back and have these days again.

I’ll end with a poem that is of help to me in forming my telos, and thus also, my techne:

Song for a Fifth Child

Mother, O’ Mother, come shake out your cloth,
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth.
Hang out the washing, make up the bed,
Sew on a button and butter the bread.
 
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking.
 
Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue,
Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo.
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due,
Pat-a-cake, darling, and peek – peekaboo.
 
The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew,
And out in the yard there’s a hullabaloo.
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look! Aren’t his eyes the most wonderful hue?
Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo.
 
The cleaning and scrubbing can wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down cobwebs; Dust go to sleep!
I’m rocking my baby and babies don’t keep.
~ Ruth Hulbert Hamilton
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Leave Margins

_MG_4804 It’s the afternoon margin, that slice of time after the lunch dishes have been cleared away, the next load is humming in the wash, the babies are laid down to nap, and supper has yet to begin gathering momentum.  Coffee, online reading, a bit of whole grain crisp bread spread with a heavy layer of butter.  The indecisive light outside, not full-blast noon nor soft late afternoon, just a bit static.

My daughter stands behind me, plaiting my hair into braids and twists and buns of all imaginings.  To look at her makes me yelp inside and sort of tremble; I can see a woman staring back at me from her luminous blue eyes, a woman where the child still is.  She reads my words and says, “Oh my word, Mommy”.

I watched a documentary about tiny houses; the whole movement of people shedding their excess and moving into homes that fit on a pull-behind trailer, downsizing their lives to the bare minimum.  It was both refreshing in regards to our culture’s rampant materialism and acquisitiveness, and at the same time rather narcissistic and selfish; when your home only fits you, well, there’s no room for others.  It has no give, no margin.  I’ve read of minimalists who only have enough plates, cups, chairs in their home as there are people who dwell within it.  Hard to have anyone over for dinner.

This reductionism isn’t just applied to space and possessions, but to time as well.  Day-timers with fifteen minute increments exist for a reason, for a particular type of busy person who really does run that tight of a life.  These people are not the ones to call if your sitter doesn’t show or you need someone to talk to; your need wasn’t scheduled and would create havoc in their slim-fitted schedule.

Why is it that when I ask how someone is doing, most of the time their answer is some variant of “crazy busy”?  Why is the first thing a new acquaintance says to me, when they’ve learned I have five children, “Wow, you must be busy!”?

People are born and married, and live and die, in the midst of an uproar so frantic that you would think they would go mad of it.  -William Howells, 1907

And I think they are going mad of it.  And the madness, I think, is only covered up by the filling and subjugating of the ordinary snatches of times of silence and introspection that used to be plentiful for us (standing in line at the grocery store, driving in the car, walking, sitting in waiting rooms, getting our hair cut).  These are now triggers to reach for a smartphone, to fill that void ever-yawning and scary with mini bits of information, with noise and distraction.

I, mother of five, small business owner, blog writer, and housewife, am not busy.  Now, I work throughout the hours of the day; I am far from lazy, but I am not flying about here and there, running this way and that, driving all over the place taking my kids to scads of activities.  My life is full, not frenzied.  

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I submit some possible helps, if you find living life breathless and harried and margin-less isn’t your cup of tea:

1.  Avoid time-stuffing.  When you have unexpected waiting times (doctor’s running behind, the grocery store lines are long, the boss is late for a meeting, etc), instead of reaching for your phone, breathe.  Really.  Take big whopping inhalations and exhalations and think.  Daydream.

2.  Leave margin in each day and each week and each month.  Have a line you draw in the proverbial sand, such as:  (day)  No more work after eight o’clock.  (week)  No more than three evenings a week for kids’ extracurricular activities.  (month)  At least one hike, ice cream date, or other family outing.  For a day, that avoids chronic overworking, and sets aside time for hobbies that would otherwise fall prey to The List.  For a week, that leaves four nights of unhurried dinners and plenty of margin for inviting a family over to eat or just enjoying one another.  For a month, that ensures that those good intentions to do things together won’t be lost in the shuffle and hustle.

3.  Give up the idols, whatever they may be, that demand the sacrifice of your family’s time and energy in gross disproportion.  It is not normal, nor healthy, to lack regular dinners together, sitting down.

4.  Say “no” when a optional activity demands the sacrifice of something that is more important.

5.  Let your kids be kids.  Don’t make their summer “productive” or be tempted to stuff it full.  Don’t even, gasp, entertain them.  That’s not your job, that’s the job of their imaginations, and today’s kids are suffering from major atrophy of that God-gifted resource.

Not a comprehensive list, to be sure, but a beginning place.  Leave margin, oh dear one, slow down.  Enjoy.

Not Busy

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“Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this…”

“Um, actually, we’re not busy.”

(blank look, followed by incredulity)

“Oh, riiiight, four kids and you’re not busy…HA-HA”, she said in a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-wink-wink way.

“No, really, we’re not.  Kind of intentionally so.”

You can see the wheels a-turning, the thoughts going through her mind:  Ah, right, she’s a missionary, not quite normalized yet to the way things are here.  It all makes sense.

A compassionate smile, “Well, if you aren’t busy now, you will be once the kids are all in sports and music.”

I don’t remember if I just lowered my eyes or mumbled that we didn’t have plans to put them in sports (at least, not in the leagues that swallow up five evenings a week and spit out a few minutes for “family time” if possible).  I’m not calling that way of doing life wrong, but life isn’t One Size Fits All, and the breathless hurry isn’t for our family.

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We paint outside, impressionist-style.  We go on forever-long meanders through the local stream, in all seasons.  We play board games.  The kids play in the yard with sticks and rocks and they trash their bikes and fill the wagon and dig up my lawn.  They pretend out in the fresh air, dressed up as knights or cowboys or gypsies.  They get bored and I don’t entertain them.  I let that boredom loom like a tsunami wave and watch their imaginations kick in, see them run for higher ground.  See them create.

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My mom was so frustrated with me.  It was about a mile walk home from my elementary school; she knew what time to call to catch me coming through the door.  My older brother and sister’s walks home were predictably prompt.  But me?  I took over an hour sometimes to walk that mile.  Because I was outside, see, and there was that one boulder in that big front yard that was shaped like a bench and I liked to lay down on it and feel the sun’s trapped heat seeping into my back.  There were flowers (dandelions) to pick and then pick apart.  I was living stories as I kicked a rock down the sidewalk.  I needed life to go kid’s pace.

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My siblings are go-getters; they happily adjusted to life full of sports and musical instruments and two jobs at a time and lawn-mowing on the side.  They’re pretty amazing people.  If there were a way to harness my sister’s energy, I’m sure it could power a small country.  My energy is there, but it doesn’t quite conform to normal ways of living in this U.S. of A.  Mine erupts in gardening and canning, beekeeping and sewing, pottery and hanging the laundry out to flap happily in the breeze.  It comes out in creative explosions in the house; we all make earrings for a week, or learn to make felt hair barrettes or make matzo bread and throw a full-fledged Passover meal.  All of it, spur-of-the-moment, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-collective pants, because I tell you quite seriously, it’s the only way my soul can breathe.

The parallel lines on the calendar always remind me of jail bars.  They dice up the days and slice up the time, and the more days that get filled with events, the higher my blood pressure rises.  What is this; schedule-a-phobia?  It’s why I fit in in Latin America, I can tell you that with a grin.  There it’s normal to let the day decide what the day will be; is it a day to spend comforting a bereaved neighbor, a irresistibly balmy day that begs for a bike ride?  Oh, that is my kind of living.

So the kids, they got this mama, and God did it for a reason.

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We might not cultivate the next Mozart nor the next Michael Jordan, but I think there’s probably parents out there who are doing that, and so the world will not be in want.  God sets children in families, particular families for particular purposes.  It’s no use trying to be a “good parent” running around like a chicken with its head cut off, if that’s not what God has called you to.  One Size Fits Some.

I don’t have it all figured out; I’m a less than ideal mama and I know it.  But I can give my children the gifts and blessings in my hands:  the curiosity about everything, the love of science, the slow pace of life that allows for hours of exploring outside, the memories of kitchen adventures (and disasters), and most of all, me…my attention, my present presence.  I can give what I can give, and I won’t make it all stretch to snapping; I won’t wear our souls thin with haste.  I’ll walk a mile an hour if need be, because there’s flowers to look into and all God’s glory spread broadcast.

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