Living Beyond Our Means

Listen to what a woman in her late thirties or early forties reported to me last week: she has two kids, one in middle school and one a rising high school student, and all their activities; she works two part-time jobs that together are more than one full-time one; and she is married with a husband and house to take care of. I could feel the anxiety rising in her voice as she listed all her responsibilities. Her story, not an uncommon one today, has been echoing in my mind this last week.  As I’ve thought about her the phrase that comes to me is this: she’s living beyond her means. Usually that phrase applies to income alone, but I think it has a broader application. Our “means” are our health, our wealth, our time, our attention and our spirit.  How much we can rightfully sustain? is the question the 21st century poses for us busy, busy people.

The cost of living beyond our means is well known—stress, anxiety, exhaustion, a compromised immune system, not to mention increased amounts of debt. We’re living in a state of debt as regards our health, our wealth and our spirit.  A life like this is not sustainable for a long time without serious consequences. While this kind of life is the norm for our country in the year 2010, there needs to be balance in the life, if we are to sustain our body, mind and spirit in the midst of all the busyness. There needs to be downtime, puttering time, journaling time, time for real connectedness to others. Exercise and going to a spa seem to be our society’s only prescriptions to balance out the busy life.

We have all the excuse we need for not taking care of ourselves or others: “I’m too busy to do one more thing,” says it all. There is a way to balance each of these areas of our lives. To protect the BODY there is good nutrition and exercise. To invest our WEALTH we need to stop spending and pay down debt until we’re debt-free and then begin to use credit cards more wisely. Our TIME is like money, spend it wisely and you have more of it; waste it and it’s gone. As to ATTENTION, we need to stop multitasking. There is an article in today’s New York Times online that describes the seductiveness of busyness and multitasking. Like food and sex which create their own problems when used to excess, multitasking creates an inability to focus and increases our dependence on the high-tech gadgets that feed the information age.** Read the whole article. For our SPIRIT there needs to be time: quiet time, creative time, and connected-to-others time. We also need to be connected to our deepest longings or risk living a life that we are not connected to at all, someone else’s life.

These cures are counter-intuitive to the values of our culture. Our American value in the 21st Century is busyness. The harder and longer we work, the more we are rewarded, but are we a happy people? Do we know how to find fulfillment? Are we living a life that is true to ourselves? Can we sustain what we’re doing for a long time? What is the cost of regret and guilt from not living our own lives? What if we and our children are too busy to really know one another?

We Americans are some of the largest consumers of the earth’s resources without regard to their sustainability. Aren’t we doing the same thing with our lives? We’re living beyond our means in our own lives—too many tasks, too much information, no time to process what’s happening to us, and no time to make reasoned decisions. The cost of living life this way is an increasing sense of deadness or depression within. How did we get into this morass? One decision at a time. And how do we get out of it? One decision at a time. We can choose to take care of our health, wealth, time, attention and spirit. There’s always a cost to each decision: with choosing not to be so busy, we step out of the culture, but gain our own sanity. When we choose to connect, really connect with our children, our spouse or others, the cost is less busyness, but the gain is in intimacy. When we find a few quiet minutes each day, we gain perspective. And so on.

**nytimes.com/2010/06/07/technology/07brain.html

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