Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Well, my grand plans to do absolutely nothing this summer have not played out like I had hoped. Between swim lessons, birthday parties, playdates, travel plans, and that "small" freelance project I took on (that, of course, ended up being not all that small), my lazy and laid-back summer is shaping up to be anything but lazy and laid-back.
Starting about a week ago, I knew that I was getting too maxed out. I knew that I needed to take steps -- drastic ones, if need be -- to clear off our schedule to give us a little breathing room, but I could never seem to break free from the momentum of our crazy days to think clearly enough to make changes. Then, yesterday, I got a wakeup call that reminded me of the real ramifications of living this way.
I was running around, getting the kids ready to go some place or another, when I remembered that an old friend had called me 10 days before, and I'd never called her back. She had said in her voicemail that she needed to talk to me about something; and though she hadn't specified what it was, my gut told me it might be important. I assured myself that I'd return her call as soon as I could. I very much wanted to connect with her, to see if there was anything she might need, but I just couldn't do it that afternoon -- I was too busy.
When I finally remembered to get back to her yesterday, she informed me that her family had experienced something very difficult. She was doing better now, and everyone was beginning to move on, but at the time it had happened she was really upset and had needed someone to talk to. We chatted for a long time and made plans to get together, and I did my best to support her, but it was clear to both of us that the moment had passed. The time that she had really needed to hear the supportive voice of a friend was 10 days before, when she'd first called me.
Situations like this always make me think of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
When I first heard that story, I found the behavior of the priest and the Levite appalling. I immediately stuck them into that handy "bad person" box, categorizing them as a type of people utterly unlike myself, people whose behavior was completely off-limits to me, that I never would -- or even could -- imitate, since I was safely in the "good person" box. Maybe I wouldn't act as perfectly as the good Samaritan, but I assured myself that I would behave nothing like that priest or the Levite!
And then one day our pastor gave a homily in which he made the startling suggestion that maybe those two men who walked by weren't such bad people after all. Perhaps, he suggested, they were quite like a lot of us. So how, then, could two normal guys, no better or worse than the rest of us, walk by a dying man in the road? His answer struck me like a bolt of lightning:
Maybe they were busy.
Suddenly that "bad person" box fell apart, and I realized that the men from the parable might actually have had eloquent justifications for their behavior. In my imagination, I had always pictured them looking at the dying man with utter disinterest, their hearts not moved in the slightest by his suffering. But suddenly I pictured an entirely different scenario, one in which they did feel great pity for the man on the road, and did want to help, but felt like they couldn't spare the time from all of their other pressing commitments. And, chillingly, I could imagine exactly what they might have said. Perhaps it was something like: "Oh, man, poor guy! I sure would stop to help if I weren't already running late for that super-important thing I'm going to. In fact, maybe after I take care of a few things I'll circle back and see if he still needs assistance. Right now, I'm just too busy."
Gosh. That sounds awfully familiar.
Here in suburbia we may not have a lot of people lying in the streets after being beaten by robbers, but that doesn't mean there aren't people all around us in dire need of our help. As I was reminded recently, I am often faced with situations similar to the one faced by the three men on the road to Jericho. The details may differ in severity to the circumstances of that parable, but they are still opportunities to do what I know is the right thing -- to actually enact the priorities I claim to hold dear -- yet I walk right by, telling myself that I can't stop because I have too much to do. Why don’t I visit nearby family members more often, pray with my kids more frequently, go to daily Mass sometimes, write that letter to a friend who's been on my heart, or all the other things I claim are top priorities? I'm "too busy."
Like all good lies, it contains a grain of truth. I really am busy. I honestly don't have time to do it all, to undertake every charitable act that comes to mind, to pray for hours each day, and so on. Yet I’ve allowed "I’m too busy" to become a sort of mantra, a plausible sounding knee-jerk reaction to gloss over those times when I'm just too lazy or too tired or too distracted or too stuck in a rut to do the right thing.
The lesson that I take away from this is not that we should beat ourselves up for dropping the ball sometimes, or that we have to say yes to every occasion to help that comes our way -- it's also important to acknowledge our own limits, and accept that we simply can't help everyone all the time. I just hope that I can use the occasion of the missed call from my friend as a lesson for the future, so that when I push back an opportunity to reach out to someone, I can make sure it's a decision that I have actually evaluated, and not a hasty response borne of a feeling of being overwhelmed. And I hope that the next time I casually throw out the phrase "I'm too busy," I'll remember that the priest and the Levite were busy too.