Counting the Days: Lessons from a Workaholic's Forced Time-Out

April 28, 2020Marcia R. Rudin

When I was 6 or 7 years old, my older sister, our friend, and I draped a sheet over my mother’s backyard clothesline in Champaign, IL, to create our secret clubhouse. In the 1940s, if you didn’t have a tree house or some kind of playhouse in your backyard, you rigged up a makeshift shelter where you could chat, share secrets, and keep a stash of forbidden goodies.

One day while in our hideaway, the chit-chatting got to me, and I screamed, “We’re not getting anything done.” I made a quick exit out of the hideaway and ran into our house.

“Getting something done” has been my mantra for my nearly 80 years.

I’ve been a workaholic all my life, always trying to make the most of my time. To-do lists, schedules, and calendars ensured that not a minute was wasted, and the reward of this work ethic was three separate successful careers. Even my rare leisure time was carefully planned to make the most of every experience, and “retirement” did not divert me from a busy, tightly structured lifestyle.

Then along came the pandemic lockdown – and instead of planning my day down to the minute, as I’ve always done, I find myself living in the moment. Instead of looking ahead to my next planned task, I stop and ask myself, “What am I doing now? What am I feeling now?”

With my new focus on the now, I’ve become more aware of myself and my surroundings. A few years ago, after cataract surgery, I immediately saw everything in brighter light and more vibrant color; similarly, I now see my life in a more glowing way.

Is this happening because the future is now so uncertain? Am I more aware that every day might be my last? Such questions give us pause and make us take serious stock of our lives.

The Bible counsels us to number our days, to make every day precious and to sanctify specific days with holiness in order to make them – and our lives – more special. As Psalm 90, Verse 12 instructs, “So, teach us to number our days so that we gain a heart of wisdom.”

And we’re now in the period of Omer, during which we are instructed to count the 49 days between the second day of Passover and the start of Shavuot. Deliberate counting helps us mark the passage of time in a mindful, intentional manner.

Now, this vivid injunction to count and number our days is even more urgent because we know the virus could hit us suddenly, and, according to some recent news reports, that we could be dead only hours after being admitted to a hospital. The possibility of death is indeed more vivid, more real.

Like so many of us, I had thought that we were living in an age when technology could surmount any health threat that might come our way. No longer were we vulnerable to the kinds of disasters that had decimated human societies in the past. It was the end of history as we knew it.

Believing in the inevitability of human progress made us complacent and over-confident. From now on, all would be fine.

We were wrong.

It has taken an existential threat to cure me of my workaholic tendencies. I no longer think about getting to the next item on my to-do list. Instead, I find myself pondering other questions.

Why do I always need to get things done?

Have I confused working with living?

What is the purpose of my life?

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

What does God require of me?

And how can I truly number my days?

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