A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing

I’m really interested in the way technology has warped our relationships with our true selves. I’m talking about the selves that show up when we’re all alone, in front of God, no masks. Because we’re liable to be “on” at all times, we rarely take a moment to be still. We’re loathe to take a moment to know God and to let God know us.

And so I’ve been very interested in a new book by Jenny Odell called How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She describes a world where “every last minute” ends up “captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.” But in the midst of push notifications and likes and friend requests, a “certain nervous feeling, of being overstimulated and unable to sustain a train of thought, lingers.”

Ash Wednesday is just one week away. Before you decide to give up candy or french fries or even Facebook, I encourage you to take Odell’s advice: do nothing. Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.

Before I became a Jesuit, my life was mechanized and optimized like Odell describes. I worked more than full time, was finishing a Masters Degree, regularly attended the theater, and had a great group of friends in New York City. Life was really exciting and perfectly documented on my Instagram and Facebook.

It was also really busy and draining. In the midst of a lot of life-giving things, I had barely a moment to rest, to slow down, to be still.

And I felt it. When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester; exhaustion I’d ignored; difficult moments I’d refused to process. Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?

When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realized that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.

As a part of my job, I had to travel internationally. At the end of a long season where I barely spent any time at home, I convinced my boss to give me a few extra days in the last city on my trip.

With few tasks to accomplish and almost no expectations on my time, I wandered.

With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations. I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.

I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods. Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.

I encourage you this Lent to do nothing. Odell recognizes that “the pitfalls of the attention economy can’t just be avoided by logging off and refusing the influence of persuasive design techniques.” Instead, wander through your neighborhood. If you feel the urge to document the walk, don’t judge yourself but simply ask why. Am I posting to connect or am I posting to show off? Does the impulse stem from aliveness or from loneliness? Most importantly, create the space in your life where God’s voice won’t be drowned out by a thousand other things. You don’t need to optimize each moment. You don’t need to listen to a podcast while you walk to work. You don’t need to check emails while you work out. You don’t need to watch television while you eat dinner. Do nothing, or at least, do ONE thing.

In the Book of Kings,1 Elijah expects to hear the voice of God in the wind, in an earthquake, in a fire, but instead hears God in a small voice. So, too, with you. God is calling to you in a small voice. You need to turn down the rest of the noise in your life in order to hear. This Lent, turn it down by doing nothing, and listen.

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Image by Khusen Rustamov from Pixabay

  1. 1 Kings 19:11-14

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