The “What Can You Give Up?” Trap

In his Advent devotional, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, on the very first day of Advent, Richard Rohr asks, “What expectations and demands of life can you let go of so that you can be more prepared for the coming of Jesus?” (p. 3)

I snapped the book shut in frustration and pulled my boots on for a walk.

I mean, the luxury of spending 45 minutes to an hour in devotional silence was not a hardship when I was on leave from my church with no “expectations and demands of life”, but I was no fool. I was already trying to figure out how I was going to block out this time while maintaining full time work, family, and community, let alone getting the rest I now knew I needed.

This is a very common question in spiritual formation. What can you give up to make more time for God? We prioritise what we make time for. If you set time aside for prayer/Scripture reading/exercise/yoga whatever it is you can’t fit in, then that will become a priority. It will no longer be a burden but  a habit. Everything else will, somehow, magically fit around it. We have all heard the parable of the rocks in the jar that will only fit if you put the big rocks in first, then the gravel, then the sand, then the water. If you haven’t, take a minute, literally, and watch this little video.  “For where you treasure is, there will your heart be also,” our Saviour said (Matthew 6:21 KJV).

Now, for some of us, this all works, and that is a great privilege for which we should be grateful. In spite of my worries, I have a relatively flexible life, so have charge of my time. But what if you don’t? What if you are what COVID has proclaimed an essential worker whose shifts have become more frequent, stressful, and dangerous with no increase in pay? What if you work the gig economy with very little control over when work and income will appear? What if you are a parent whose children’s school and activities dictate every minute you have outside of your full time work?

This is the “What can you give up?” trap. It is a fair question for folks who, like me, have some flexibility in our lives. We have seen this division very clearly during COVID. Some of us were able to easily transfer our work from the office to home with our homes already accommodating the space for the technology that has become essential in so many lives. Many of us, however, were not. Millions lost their jobs and a huge chunk of their income. Parents were expected to carry on a normal schedule while children stayed home from daycare and school.

Asking an overwhelmed person, “What can you let go of?” will raise up one of two answers, 1) Nothing or 2) a list of small things that can possibly move around. If the answer is 2, then spending time in the spiritual life just becomes one more thing on the to-do list and, when something urgent comes up, has a high likelihood of being dropped and, eventually, forgotten. The question is a trap for busy people, as most of us are. If we give stuff up, we risk overburdening others, simply pushing things to later, losing income, dropping balls that can’t be dropped. If we do not give stuff up, then we are disappointing God! Either way, the question sets us up for nothing but guilt.

It was with this trap raging in my mind that I went for a walk. Right. What can I give up? Even though I have control over my time, the question was stressing me out. If only I had more time, I thought. Then, a question formed in my mind. What can I give up that does not involve giving up time? Is that even possible? Rohr’s question is a little more flexible. What expectations and demands of life can you let go of? If I can’t give up any more time, what can I give up? Everything requires time.

I can only give up those things over which I have control: My own reaction to events around me. I turned the question away from my responsibilities and towards my inner being. What expectations and demands of myself can I let go of? What mental patterns can I release myself from? A list quickly started to form. Stop expecting perfection and embrace good enough. Stop comparing myself to others. Stop deflecting praise. Stop hashing potential outcomes over and over trying to predict and solve every possible problem. Stop rolling my eyes at words and people I should listen to. Stop being a responsibility hoarder. Stop ignoring your comfort. Stop setting up task-reward strategies. Stop working towards praise from others.

As I continued the list, I noticed that I was not reacting to this like I do to most of my other lists. This was not a common to-do list. My mind wasn’t spinning with hows and whens and whys. Each new revelation brought with it a little release. Yes, I responded, I can definitely do away with that. And, if my mind isn’t full of all these expectations and worries I place on myself, is it possible, I might just have room in the inn for Jesus?

That first day of Rohr’s Advent devotional was, actually, pretty good. He points us into holy spaces and paradoxes of us and the Reign of God. He says this:

The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.

Our pursuit of certainty leaves us vulnerable to unrealistic expectations of ourselves. All of this is simply an effort to quiet the cries of our minds to hear the Voice of Love in our lives.

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