I wrote once about the amount of time mental illness takes from us, about the waste of our time and resources that our ill-health can bring. Mental illness can cause us to feel like we are wasting our time, being idle, not making the most of our opportunities. I urged that we think of our time of illness as being productive in some other way, to remind us that we believe in a God who brings blessings from curses and who may use all our wasted days to some other purpose.
There is a related problem, when we strive to make ourselves so busy that we cease to take time, take stock, and talk to God. I think this is an endemic problem, and by no means confined to those of us with mental health problems, but I know that when I am well – and particularly when I am “high” (hypomanic) I can seek to be a powerhouse of energy, to do this and that, to fill every waking moment with activity.
I am conscious, too conscious, of the idea of wasting time, and while I have accepted that my depressions force me to “waste” time when I am simply unable to do the things I would like to do, when I am well, or more well, I try to do everything. Others are the same – and others have responsibilities I do not have, and more in their lives, such as children and partners. Women, we are told, are particularly susceptible to trying to be the best at their job, the best at childcare, and the best at home they can be, and in the process making themselves susceptible to mental illness. Of course, men too face pressure to be always active, always doing something.
For me, this attempt to do more, and more, can lead to going too high. When I am slightly high I am very productive, very efficient, very good at jobs I take on, because I have tremendous energy and ambition. I also feel very nice indeed, thank you! If I could keep it at that minor level, I would be very pleased – but the reality is that my highs are an abnormal mental state, and progress until I become unbearable to be around, until my thoughts scatter, until I have the will to do everything but so much energy that I cannot concentrate. I am quite lucky, in that my highs are only hypomania – not full-blown mania as others have.
While my ability to sustain a frenetic pace of work or activity comes from my mental illness, others achieve the same thing by pushing themselves very hard indeed to be the best. After all, we are taught in childhood to try to be the best, to push ourselves harder, to work harder. I see this as mentally unhealthy, that if we do not take enough rest, we cannot restore ourselves after activity and cannot recuperate. Sometimes we need to force ourselves to take time out, to catch our breaths, and to relax.
Spiritually, too, we need to take breaks. We can try to be the best evangelist, the one who does the most, to fill our time with religious activity – but we can miss the point that way. Paul writes:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
(1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Sometimes we need to think less about what we are doing and more about who we are doing it for. If we do not take time for God, to love God, and if we do not take time to love, then the purpose of our activity in doing anything is pointless. I recall in the Gospels incidents where Jesus, in the midst of what was a busy ministry, healing, teaching and exorcising, took a step back. He went away, often by himself, to pray, to talk to God. Sometimes we need to make a space in our lives to walk with God and reflect on ourselves, rather than making ourselves busy.
Are we seeking not to confront something in our lives with our busyness? There are times when I have filled my life with reading religious books, with going to church, with doing “Christian” things (and buying Christian things) – but what I have been covering up is that I have not been as close to God as I would like. I have not prayed enough, read the Bible enough, nor sat in silence before him enough. Activity can be a (poor) substitute for the really important matter of us and God.
I would urge regular breaks from activity, whether “Christian” or work, or anything else, where possible. Whether that be getting someone to look after the children, going on retreat, going on holiday, making space for an hour or two to be by yourself, to look after yourself, to pray. Something. I believe that taking time out can help us both in terms of mental health and can also help in terms of spirituality. Above all, talk to God. When we stop talking to him we start to come loose of our moorings, to wander off – and then all the activity in the world, however noble, really doesn’t matter.
I read a poem once, which I would like to reproduce here, about prayer, and time, and I would like to end with that.
I got up early one morning
And rushed right into the day!
I had so much to accomplish
That I didn’t have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me,
And heavier came each task.
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered.
He answered, “You didn’t ask!”
I tried to come into God’s presence;
I used all my keys at the lock.
God gently and lovingly chided,
“Why, child, you didn’t knock!”
I wanted to see joy and beauty,
But the day toiled on, gray and bleak.
I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “But you didn’t seek.”
I woke up early this morning,
And paused before entering the day.
I had so much to accomplish
That I had to take time to pray!
- 4 Things Not To Say to a Depressed Christian (believersbrain.com)
- Keeping Your Mind and Heart Healthy: Mental Health & Dating Relationships (healthyheels.wordpress.com)
- Mental Illness (essencelifeblog.com)
- Professor Louis Appleby (mentalhealthcop.wordpress.com)
- Half of Police Shootings Involve People with Mental Illness (psychcentral.com)