In an age of rapidly increasing technology, mass higher education, and increasing prosperity it would appear that our lives are forever getting better. Our society is more well informed and well pampered than ever before. Our once simple lives have become more fancy, more fabulous! Every event, institution and organization we are involved in performs in a more professional, detailed and complicated way. What was once considered acceptable and even wonderful, is now well below grade. The bar has been decidedly raised.
Showing Mercy to Ourselves and Everyone Else
Growing up, many of us recall hearing about the simpler lives our parents and grandparents lived. Before televisions and even telephones, before suburbs and station wagons, our near ancestors lived a life that seemed sweet, quiet, and serene, perhaps even a little boring. I remember the shock when I finally realized that, though the photos were all sepia-toned, the lives they represented were lived in color! Such a silly 1970’s child thought, but it was telling in a way. Perhaps their lives appeared to this casual observer to be flat and colorless, but the reality not captured by film was far deeper and fuller than I imagined. I thought how hard it must have been not to have washing machines and dryers, and it was. Perhaps, however, we have traded one hardness for another.
Looking back to my own childhood, it was far simpler than my children’s lives now. I went to school and came home. I was involved in a few activities that were very low key. I was able to walk or perhaps ride a bike to a friend’s house. I did my best at school, mostly. I didn’t worry about college until I was a junior in high school. I was a kid. To be sure there were folks around who were taking things a lot more seriously than we were, but most of us were living and enjoying what we had. Somewhere in the past forty years it seems that everything has become far more polished. From home décor to cooking to careers to kids’ birthday parties, somehow, with so many things, the bar has been raised.
Raising the Bar
A reference to vaulting, this idiom has connotations of quality and excellence, and in the athletic context, rightly so. In all areas of our society and our lives, however, raising the bar has become constant. We have moved away from having traditional ways of doing things toward having to always exceed whatever was done the last time. Perhaps we grew up vacationing at a cottage on the lake. Every year, we rented the same cottage, brought the same games, took the same walks, and went to the same ice cream shop on Saturday night. The only things that changed were the ages of the kids and the responsibilities and privileges they were given. Today, kids start out at Disney World, move on to New York City, and have made a grand tour of Europe by the time they are in their teens. Perhaps your birthday party as a child consisted of cake, ice cream, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, balloons, and those hats with the rubber band to keep them on (snap – ouch!). Today, moms wrack their brains trying to come up with something new and exciting that hasn’t already been done, some restaurant or amusement arcade that the kids haven’t already exhausted. Are we happier in this shinier, better, more exciting life we are living?
My belief is, no, we are not. None of these activities deepen our relationships with each other or with God, so they simply cannot make use happier. Our pictures may look better: our Facebook pages may impress. A shiny life, however, is skin deep. If you look past the appearances of the mom speeding past you in her SUV, you just may glance desperation and even despair. She is doing everything right, working very hard, and has all of her family’s ducks in a row, but she doesn’t know how long she can keep it up or if she really wants to. She would like to bow out and simplify. But that bar is so high.
Lower the Bar
This is where we come in. Those of us who are blessed to have Jesus in our lives, to live a life of faith and the Sacraments: this is where our light is supposed to shine. And it is so easy! All you have to do is set an example of mediocrity in the lesser things of life, thus giving the folks around you a chance to exhale!
A thing worth doing is worth doing badly. – G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton did so many things well but took none of it, or himself, too seriously. This little thought of his is enough to revolutionize domestic life in our society. What if we didn’t worry so much about how our child’s birthday parties looked to the other parents and chose to focus instead on celebrating our child’s life? What if our homes were places to live, places to welcome friends, families, and strangers, instead of showplaces? What if we just had a couple ladies over to pray and have tea rather than waiting for the time when we could start a proper ministry? A thing worth doing is worth doing badly! Just do what God is putting on your heart to do, right there in your current circumstances, with your shabby carpets and your mix-and-match dishes. Lower the bar and give everyone around you permission to lower their bar too.
Let Go and Let God
When we choose to lower the bar on our personal standards of how things must be done, we are really showing mercy to ourselves, our families, and our peers. This change can then inspire them to show mercy to themselves, their families, and their peers. Jesus died for us to live life freely. He desires us to let go of all that has us bound. He desires to enact His plan for a truly abundant life for each of us, if we let Him. But for Him to act, we have to let go of our rigid, high-bar plan. By lowering that bar we are allowing God to set the standards, and His standards are freedom and love, joy and peace. His standards may be messier than we are used to, but they have that fullness of life that our ancestors lived so naturally.
By lowering the bar and letting go, we do not stop working on those “things worth doing.” We continue to work, but with freedom from expectations which lead to that ever-raising bar. A wise woman once said to me, “Expectations lead to desolation.” So true. When we let go and allow God’s plan in our lives we begin to live more and more in the present moment, being present to the people He places in our lives, and ultimately being more and more present to Him.
By simply choosing to serve God in the duty of this present moment we open ourselves to the experiences and relationship He intends for us to have and to share, and simultaneously close ourselves off from expectations and comparisons that lead us empty.
This radical simplicity of lowering the bar can affect every part of our lives. As a mother of children who attend Catholic schools, I am so often saddened by the way that these schools believe they must constantly raise their own bars. They chase after rankings, technology, and all of the bells and whistles that the much better funded public schools have, instead of simply being the awesome kind of different they already are. What they have to offer may not be for everyone, but there are enough parents out there who are disenchanted with modern schooling, standardized testing, and technophile teaching to take a second look at Catholic schools. What those parents could find are warm and welcoming schools with less-than-state-of-the-art everything, not wannabe public schools. By constantly raising the bar, we seem to be missing the point.
By automatically raising the bar in any area of our life, we miss the point. Life is not meant to be a spiral chase up to the top. As the saying goes, it is lonely at the top. Conversely lowering the bar allows our relationships to blossom, because we have time to focus on them. If we are liberated from ever increasing expectations about the things that don’t matter, we can spend that freed energy and attention on our families and our friends. Letting go of what is superficial, we naturally grab on to that which is authentic.
This organic move to authentic over superficial will ultimately extend to our relationship with God. God’s plan always gets around to union with Him. By lowering the bar on so many lesser areas we can finally have the time, the energy and the presence of spirit to delve deeper into life with Him.
…if we freed ourselves, at whatever cost, from the frenzied tempo of modern life and taught ourselves to be still, to pray; then, in the prayer-stillness, we would begin to be aware of the distant horizons which give this world its meaning. – Father Gerald Vann, OP, “At the Foot of the Cross”, © 1950 Sophia Institute Press, Manchester, NH
Those distant horizons are not populated by the superficial, the passing aspects of this life. They are populated by souls and by God. By lowering the bar on the lesser things, we can pursue excellence in relationships, in works of mercy, in virtue, in LOVE. That distant horizon is LOVE! To get there we must not allow the lesser things to take precedence in our lives. We must be merciful to ourselves and those around us by accepting a life of simplicity and even mediocrity in the lesser things in order to fully pursue LOVE.
This Lent why not show yourself some mercy? Lower the bar on every single thing you are doing. Watch that mercy spread to those you love as you let go of your false expectations and allow God to put His plan into action. Grab hold of the authentic life He offers. Selah. He loves you.