One of the greatest teachers I ever had was a lady called Mrs McGuinness who taught me English Literature. She was the person who gave me a love of books and stories like no one had ever done before. If it wasn’t for her I may never have taken English at A-level or indeed for my degree, and perhaps I wouldn’t be sitting writing this now!
But she also told us something else that has remained fixed in my mind. At first it doesn’t seem very profound, but this morning it’s come back to me with a freshness that I so needed to hear.
The school I attended was a grammar school in Northern Ireland, and so once you got to A-levels there was an academic expectation built in to everything that happened. It was understood that you would/should go to university and so the focus in sixth form was constantly around study and exams and achievement. At the time it didn’t feel like unusual pressure because it was just how things were. All teachers ever spoke to you about was your revision timetable and past papers. Inevitably there were more than a few moments when we’d all get very stressed about this great moment of history that was coming our way, this fork in the road where our whole future hinged entirely on how many hours of study I put in that night.
It was during one of these frantic end-of-lesson discussions with Mrs. McGuinness that she said something that no other teacher had ever dared to suggest. She said that studying wasn’t the be all and end all. That regardless of what happened in our exams the sun would still set and rise again tomorrow. And that you really couldn’t study every hour that God gave you – at some point you had to pause and walk away from the books and do something that made you happy, however simple.
It was like a breath of fresh air had just blown into the room.
At the time it felt like permission to relieve the tension and expectation of the academic atmosphere, but over time I’ve come to realise that she gave us a huge life lesson, one which I need to remind myself of every now and then.
Because pressures and expectations don’t go away when you’ve finished studying. Throughout your life there will be wave after wave of them, coming from all directions – parents, peers, bosses, church, culture, not to mention your own voice telling you what you really should be doing. We so often get ourselves to the point where we tie ourselves in knots of stress and exhaustion because we are on the treadmill of fulfilling expectations.
Right now just stop for a moment, and ask yourself this question. What would give me life right now? What is the thing that my soul craves? Where will I find peace, even for fifteen minutes?
Now go and do that thing.
But I can’t because there are all these things I have to do, I have a list the length of my arm, I’m spinning all these plates and I just can’t stop.
Oh but you can.
A plate might fall. Let it.
You might disappoint some people. They’ll live.
Your list will still be there later, or tomorrow – or next week.
But here’s what you’ll gain: Life!
And peace and joy and rest.
There’s a Chinese proverb that says “He who takes time to sharpen his sword does not rob his employer.” For you to be the best version of you for the world around you, for you to give of your best to your family, your work, your friends – you need to choose what gives you life, at least once in a while.
When the psalmist talks about the Lord leading us beside quiet waters and restoring our souls, it’s tempting to think that the only thing this looks like is sitting quietly in a room with our Bibles open. But I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Because He made you and knows what makes you tick. He knows what will drain you and what will restore you. And he will meet you in a salsa class as well as in a church service. He can restore you through a trip to the cinema as well as a retreat centre. He can refresh you as you play your guitar, or paint or garden.
He knows what gives you life and He’ll meet you in that place.
But first you have to be willing to set aside the lists and the expectations, to leave things undone and to make time and space to get there.