As a kid, I learned this song about a stressed-out guy named Joe. It went something like this:
Hi, my name is Joe
I got a wife and three kids and I work in a button factory
One day my boss came to me and said, “Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “no.”
He said, “Then push the button with your right hand.”
We would then begin to push a pretend button with our right hands and launch into the song again, ending this time with “left hand” and the addition of right and left hand pretend-button pushing.The song could continue ad nauseum, requiring participants to “push the button” with both hands, both feet, head, nose, and the optional silliness of tongue and backside. I remember trying to teach this song to my dad in the car once and wondering why he wasn’t getting into the spirit of things. (Oh, right, he was holding onto the steering wheel and keeping us alive.)
I haven’t sung about Joe the Button Pusher in years. But I haven’t forgotten about him. Because sometimes I am Joe — juggling work that I’m passionate about with the right hand, work that pays the bills with the left hand, and family, friends, church, hobbies, and health with my remaining weary appendages.
Juggling. It’s a picture I keep coming back to when I think about life lately.
So I wonder: What are you juggling? What do you do when you start to realize you’re juggling? (No, really. What do you do? Help me out here!)
I’ve seen basically 3 options:
1) Keep juggling. Except that this is unhealthy, leading to burnout and manifest in an array of potential psychological, physiological, social, and spiritual consequences. (Even Joe the Button Pusher doesn’t keep juggling forever. Eventually, after probably an unhealthy duration of time, Joe’s Button-Pusher Boss asks Joe if he’s busy and he belts out yes.)
2) Say no. This is so healthy. And so hard. Resources like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s best-selling book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life have helped me get a bit better at saying no. Making a list of what I’m juggling and then prayerfully prioritizing the items on the list has helped me too. But, let’s be real. It’s still so hard. If for no other reason than sometimes we really can’t say no — can’t say no to a true emergency, to a child or elderly person who needs help, even to a task that’s stressful but we feel utterly called to do nonetheless.
3) Be like Benedict. This is a middle way, a via media, that I’ve been dabbling in recently using the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a way of not only saying a black-and-white “yes” to some things and “no” to other things but saying “with God’s help” to all things. This is a way of practicing the presence of God while working and even by working (although not to the exclusion of rest). St. Benedict upholds as his highest priorities ora et labora: “pray and work.” In fact, as Benedict writes, “he who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.” The contemporary writer and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris helps us see this in modern life in her writings like Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Benedict could see prayer happening in daily labor. Norris has seen prayer happening in daily laundry of all things.
What exactly does Benedict have to do with juggling many tasks? What would he do — what can we do — in Joe the Button Pusher’s situation?
We can pray and work. We can pray while working and even by working. The juggling may continue, but it will continue with God’s help — a little steadier, a little stronger, a little sweeter.