Zip Codes or Rip Cords?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 7, 2001
Some years ago, the following advertisement appeared in a newspaper in the state of Virginia:
Regret, indeed. Sometimes, I worry about things like this. What, I think, if I was one of those parachuting enthusiasts, and had just breezed through Easy Sky Diving, but then hadn’t read the paper that morning. I have dark visions of myself hurtling through space, picking up speed, faster and faster, shouting “0-2-0-7-2!!” to an uncomprehending universe. It’s kind of scary to think about…
But so often in life, I think, we mix up our zip codes and our rip cords. We spend our time doing so many countless things we don’t need to be doing at the time, and neglecting to do those things we ought to be doing, that we should be doing, that we probably even want to be doing. Then— bam!—we hit the ground—we fall to Earth not so gracefully-- we crash land—or we grow resentful as the end of the day (maybe the end of our days) looms upon us like a great big dead end: The things we have wanted to accomplish have not been done; our calling in life has not been answered; the people to whom we wanted to express our love have not received it.
Sometimes, doesn’t it feel as though we are sleepwalking through our lives, that the road has become our driver? We go through the motions of life, from one 15-minute appointment span to the next—or from one well-scheduled chore to the next—from one line on the “have to do” list to the next—and maybe we even accomplish a good number of things in a day—but is that all there is? But are we really living?
Why all this haste? Why do we insist on cramming so much into our days—including, no doubt, so much we could probably do without?
“We are prepared to be starved even before we are hungry,” wrote Thoreau. But why? Why do we waste so much time in our modern lives? Why do we go on shouting out our zip codes and wasting our lives when we should be pulling loose those rip cords and redeeming our lives?
Well, I think there are three reasons: Stuff, stuff, and stuff. That’s why we’re driving ourselves crazy, in the main. More precisely, the particular problems we harried modern men and women face are unbridled material accumulation; irresponsible consumption; the need for power and control; and the unquestioning use of technology.
Those are the reasons, I think—or a big part of them, at least-- that we’re driving ourselves to distraction and working ourselves to death.
Material accumulation: “In gold we trust.” In 1952 (or was it ’56?), when he was the Republican candidate for Vice President, Richard M. Nixon boldly predicted that, by the year 2000, the average work week for the average American worker would be down to 30 hours per week. Guess what? Tricky Dick was wrong!
According to the Families and Work Institute, the average employed American now works more than 47 hours per week, on average. Throw in an hour a day of commuting time (and that may on the low side for some people, especially around here), and you’ve already got a work week of 52 hours—and that’s before overtime. Multiply this by all the families where both parents work outside the home (or where there is only one parent doing the work of two) and you get some sense of the incredible strain our families in America today are facing. Is it any wonder, then, that 68% of Americans say that they come home from work “exhausted”—compared with 53%, just in 1989?
Why are we doing this? Why do we work so hard, so many hours?
A large part of the reason, I think, is that we live in this culture that incessantly proclaims, subtly or not, that more is better. As Ellen Goodman put it so aptly: “Normal [to us] is getting dressed in clothes you buy for work, driving though traffic in a car you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need so you can pay for the clothes, the car, and the house that you leave empty every day in order to afford to live in it.”
It’s a Faustian bargain, isn’t it: We pay for all the stuff we “want” (or that we think we “want”, or are told we “want”) with our very lives—with our precious minutes, hours, days… But maybe—just maybe—if we could learn to make due with less, we could live a life that was fuller—more multi-faceted, more blest with color and fragrance…
Sometimes, it’s as though we only feel that we’re alive—that our lives are justified—if every single bare space on our calendars, or in our date books, is crammed full of all that we have to do. You go to parties sometimes (or, more likely, you sit at meetings, because people don’t have parties as much as they used to; people don’t entertain as much as they used to; I know we don’t), and there’s this one-ups-manship that goes on when people talk about how many hours they work each week. “I worked 57 hours last week,” one person will say. “Well, I worked 62 hours!” somebody else will respond. “I worked six days.”/ “I’ve worked 7 days without a day off,” somebody else will say.
Did you ever hear anyone speak up, and say, “I only worked 32 hours last week.” Of course not! Imagine how even those of us who pride ourselves on being oh-so-unjudgmental would look down our noses in judgment at someone who said something like that openly. “What’s wrong with him?” we’d think. “What a lazy so-and so! Has he no pride?”
You see, the Puritan work ethic is alive and well, at least here in America, at least here in the Northeast. (It’s may be in better shape now than when the Puritans were here!) And it may well be killing us. Or at least, killing something important inside of us.
Now, let me be clear why this sermon isn’t subtitled “In praise of sloth.” I believe in putting in a full day, in falling into bed exhausted at night. I believe that there’s no such thing in life as a free lunch, and that the way we earn our keep, most of us, is through our own hard labor in our chosen fields. I believe that working hard builds character, and that nothing worthwhile is accomplished without dedication, and care, and labor.
I just want us to find some perspective, some balance, that’s all. There’s a place for knowing your zip code and things like that. If you want to get mail, you’d better know your zip code. If you’re going to pay your bills and provide for your family, you’ve got to work. That’s just the way life is. But if we let the damned dailies overtake our lives, don’t be surprised if before long we start thinking of our days as damned, as cursed and not blessed. That would the supreme tragedy. For life is too short not to be grateful for it, not to see it as a blessing and to live it so that it is a blessing.
I’m not asking all of you to quit your jobs, and get rid of everything, and completely change the way you live your lives. I’m just suggesting that we all try to make some small changes to put our lives back in balance—to be able to see the blessed, beautiful trees of life amidst the heavy, dense forest of our living.
I think there are three ways we can start to do this:
Those are, I think, three simple guideposts around which we can center our lives and strive to find balance. They’re three simple reminders of what we are about here in this life—that help us to gain perspective—and discern the zip codes from the rip cords-- and to remember the words of Goethe: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”
First: Live simply.
The famous photographer Richard Avedon, a success any way our society measures it, certainly, nonetheless came to a point in his life where he felt a distinct sense of disease, a sense that things weren’t quite right. Finally, after a long, hard look at his life, he decided that his problem was that he had too much stuff. He decided that his life was too cluttered with things, most of which he didn’t really need or want. So he removed everything from his house—every stick of furniture, every piece of clothing, every pot, every pan, every book, every work of art, everything. Out of his house it all went. Then, discerning carefully, meditating, as it were, over every item, he brought back into the house only those things that fed his spirit.
I’m not saying that we should all go home after church today and pile everything on the front lawn and start over as Avedon did (though, I have to admit, it sounds awfully tempting sometimes). But we can take inventory and simplify—slowly, surely pass along those things we don’t need; not buy an item we don’t really need; consume more responsibly the resources of this Earth; not always have to get the newest, latest, most advanced technological gadget.
When we do live more simply, we’ll learn the joy of enough. “The one who knows we have enough is truly rich, the Koran states. Knowing enough means going a long way toward knowing our true selves, and knowing the worth and dignity of who we really are.
Second: Take time to listen for the voice of God.
Remember the story from two week’s ago about the young professor who came to the Zen Master seeking the meaning of life. And the Zen Master sat him down for tea, and just kept pouring and pouring and pouring, till the tea was all over the place. And when the young man protested, the Zen Master said: “That’s just like you,” the Zen master replied. “How can you be open to receive enlightenment if you are already so full of yourself?”
Oftentimes, to hear the voice of God, we have to be quiet! We have to learn to be quiet, and listen to the wind, listen to the birds. Perhaps they have a message for us; at least, we know they have a song. Sometimes, in order to know where on the road we are, we have to stop—get off the road—and ask if this is really where we want to be.
Third: Strive to be right and just in all of our relationships. Our relationships to one another are our most important rip cords. They’re the true ties that bind us to life.
More than ever now, since September 11th, that simple line from the song by the singer Jewel keeps singing in my head:
In the end, all that really matters is that we are kind to each other, to the best of our abilities.
“We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand,” wrote Marie Beyon Ray, “and melting like a snowflake. Let us use [that moment] before it is too late.”
Let us use that moment wisely, and gently, and lovingly.