I recently had the opportunity to participate in a ReImagine conversation on overcoming the fear of missing out. This is what I wrote.
As soon as I could get a job I did. I was 15, when I got my first job as a party hostess. Being a hostess was perfect for me but it also meant that in addition to being in student council, a few honor societies, choir, voice lessons, youth group, karate, and all honors classes, I now also had a job. For the next 7 years as I transitioned from high school to college, my average schedule required that I be awake by 7 am at the latest and in bed no earlier than 1 am, but it was usually more like 6am to 2am. I wanted to do everything right, get into a good college and change the world.
My senior year of college I became sick in the middle of the night, somehow whatever was wrong with my stomach made me stop breathing. I had time to go to the doctor 3 days later. Needless to say he was rather perturbed that I had stopped breathing, but hadn't bothered to come in for three days. He asked about my life and schedule, eating habits and caffeine intake. Then determined that I was stressed, not only stressed but I was making myself very ill. After a few more questions it was revealed that my heath overall was not ideal. How could it be? I averaged 5 hours of sleep a night and lived off caffeine.
You would think that a doctor lecturing you on your health would make you change your habits. I tried. When I started seminary the following fall I was determined to only focus on school and work. No extra curricular commitments. That lasted about a month before I became terribly bored and lonely. Plus, being a full-time waitress and full-time graduate student doesn't exactly reduce your stress. So, the cycle began again. At least this time I was making it to my doctor's appointments.
Still, I wasn't getting much sleep and I was rushing around constantly, and to make matters worse I felt guilty for all the ways I wasn't doing enough. I remember often waking up to my messy room and thinking “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” so shouldn't I have time to clean this room? I know that verse had more to do with loving people and meeting the needs of others, but for me it was a reminder that I wasn't perfect.
Luckily, I was able to get a new job my second year in seminary. Being a chaplin was a better fit in that it didn't require running around taking orders, but it did require that I be available for freshman girls at all hours of the day and night. As my health wasn't improving the doctors recommended therapy, which I wasn’t excited about because I didn't want to admit that I had white girl problems. I felt spoiled sitting there talking about myself. But I wanted to figure out what was wrong with me (spoiler alert: I had ciliac, which is an actual medical diagnosis, the doctors were just too distracted by my stress level to notice I had a medical condition not a psychological one).
About 6 months into therapy my therapist asked when I became so busy. I responded that it was when I was 15, and therefore it was the only way I knew how to live. She probed about my life at home during those years, and I informed her that my parents thought I was rebellious and that getting a job created the freedom I needed to have my own life. She pointed out that 9 years later I didn't need to prove to my parents that I was independent, and in fact I had done a decent job proving it to everyone. So, we had one of those therapy moments you see in TV movies, where I cried but didn't change.
My identity was wrapped up in being good at everything and to be good at everything you have to do everything. I had good grades, a great job, a decent car, a cute apartment, a fun social life, I traveled and had done a decent amount of volunteer work. I was on leadership at church. I was doing everything I was supposed to do, and simply couldn't see what I could give up. So, I kept going, barely sleeping, and chasing every good thing I could find.
During my last semester of school I moved to San Francisco. My first year here, I had my unpaid internship, the last of my school work, and two jobs, but in an attempt to pursue simplicity I didn't run myself as ragged as I had for many of the years prior. I managed this by picking a small group of people to be friends with and really only hanging out with them, over time their lives and mine changed and I needed more friends.
My third year, I had a dramatic shift in my friendships and faith community. In a desperate attempt to fain independence and prove that I was happy I completely gave into my fear of missing out. Starting around my 28th birthday I was out nearly every night of the week, embracing every fun adventure this city had to offer. I had a great time. I am so grateful that I let myself be the hot mess I was that year. I learned a lot about myself, my friends, and my city. At the end of that year, I learned that a) I will never overcome my fear of missing out, I will probably always be a tad overbooked in pursuit of the next best thing for me b) my identity is based in who I am not what I do, but I am not sure I can separate those two things.
I have decided that I like having a full schedule and it’s ok when that schedule is full of volunteering and personal growth commitments, more than when it is packed with parties. I would love to say that my desire to spend at least one night a week at home is a result of a sense of identity independent of activity… but actually it’s due to my developed value of sleep. I also feel pretty settled when it comes to friends; I have some of the best, and they live all over the world. I am still terrified that I am not working hard enough to pursue a career worthy of my skills and that may have me running the risk of damaging other significant relationships.
What I have figured out is this: Being busy does not equate to being a good person or a bad person. Doing good for the world, and not being their for the people in your everyday life, doesn’t equate to loving your neighbor as yourself: your friends and family are your neighbors, along with the least of these. Being too busy isn’t healthy. It took the doctors over 5 years to figure out a medical diagnosis largely because my lifestyle alone was enough to make a person ill. Being chaotically busy doesn't leave space for God and stillness with God is really helpful when you are trying to figure out how to be the person God created you to be. I was recently reading On The Incarnation, and I loved how St Athanasius explains the need for Jesus. The short of it is: we were created in the image of God and we forgot who God was and therefore forgot ourselves. Uncontrolled and chaotic business makes me forgetful, I forget who God is and therefore forget myself.
Even with all of that, I want to be clear that I am talking about uncontrolled and chaotic business. I am a person with insane amounts of energy: I like that about myself. I just want to be mindful of how I live that out and what is motivating me. Busy in it of itself is not good or bad, it just is.