Sometimes just nothing, or something simple, is best
Some of the best advice I’ve gotten in my life didn’t sound like advice at all, at the time. It sounded like soothing nothings, like meaningless truisms from someone who didn’t understand what the problem really was. But in retrospect, it was the only possible course of action.
Take, for example, the time I complained to my priest that my prayer life was basically useless, because I was so distracted and couldn’t focus for more than a second or two. He smiled and said, “Well, just keep coming back to it.”
This advice sounded so dismissive and simplistic at the time. But years later, I have to admit that there is no other advice. There is no trick or shortcut to prayer. As soon as you’re aware that your mind has wandered, just pick up where you left off, simple as that. Prayer is only efficacious because God is listening, anyway, so you just do your best and trust Him to make something out of it.
Unless someone’s dying or hurting themselves or someone else, maybe it’s okay to wait a while.
It was hard for me to see what good advice it was because there was some hidden arrogance in my frustration. I thought my problem was so subtle and complex, there must be a subtle and complex solution for it. But it wasn’t, and there wasn’t. I just need to get over myself and try again.
Another example is something that may especially come in handy to people who are, as they say, extremely online. Are you ready? Here’s the advice: Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait.
This is more or less the advice my therapist gave me when I complained to him about a terrible professional bind I was in. I was feeling intense pressure from some friends to write an essay addressing a certain issue in the news. I had heard over and over again, from people I respected, that for someone with my particular platform not to write such an essay was a willful silence akin to violence.
But I also heard just as loud clamours (partially from myself) saying that there are already an awful lot of essays being written on that topic, and there was a very fine line between writing important something so that something important gets said, and making yourself important by saying the thing that people want you to say; ie, pandering.
This may not sound like a dilemma to you, but it certainly felt like one at the time (and it’s not the first time I felt it). I was absolutely paralysed because it felt like nothing I did was going to be the right thing, and nothing I said was going to be adequate, but also doing nothing was the worst possible thing someone like me could do right then.
And there my cold, unfeeling therapist sat, casually crossing one skinny leg over the other and telling me to go ahead and do nothing. He told me that there wasn’t going to be any way to please everyone, and that wasn’t something I needed to be worrying about anyway, so just forget it. People would get over it.
He told me that there wasn’t going to be any way to please everyone
He was right, of course. The fever passed. The tempest that felt so urgent was largely inside my own head, and the part that really was coming from outside — well, just because people are getting worked up over something doesn’t mean it’s actually important; and just because they’re worked up about it today doesn’t mean they will be tomorrow. And anyway, I’m just this one random essayist bobbing around on an ocean of words, words, words. One essay really just doesn’t matter that much. It was okay to do nothing.
Don’t get me wrong. I know very well that a single essay can be important. I’m glad Abraham Lincoln went ahead and wrote down the Gettysburg Address, rather than thinking, “Nah”. I’m glad the gospel writers sat down and did their thing, rather than letting the feeling pass. But also, I am not Lincoln, and I am not Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
I have written a few things that have meant something to a few people, but I have also written a shameful number of things that felt immensely important at the time, but in retrospect, I would have put that time to better use perfecting my recipe for onion soup.
There are few real emergencies in life
So I’m passing this advice along to you, and I’m finding that it applies to all kinds of situations: Maybe you don’t have to do anything. It applies when I’m online, and finding myself knocked around by the constant tempests that blow up and blow themselves out day after day; but also to situations that come up in person, and which seem like an urgent, howling emergency — problems between family members, or issues at school, or worries about work or the house or a social situation.
Maybe it’s an emergency, and maybe it isn’t. If it’s something that really needs to be addressed, it’s probably not going to go away. If it’s a good idea today, it will probably still be a good idea tomorrow.
Unless someone’s dying or hurting themselves or someone else, maybe it’s okay to wait a while. If it feels very urgent, who’s making it feel that way? Is it someone who actually has good judgment and legitimate authority in your life? Or is it just someone who’s especially loud? Give yourself a chance to assess things more clearly, think more deeply, let the fever burn out and see what the damage really is. Maybe it will resolve itself without you having to do anything.
Or maybe all you have to do is the simple, unsubtle, non-complex thing you’ve been doing all along, that isn’t going to feel powerful or world-changing, but it’s really the only thing that could possibly work.
- Simcha Fisher: Making the church in our image
- Simcha Fisher: 10 ways to let the pandemic shape your Lent