By Mac Stewart
I was a devoted tennis player growing up: daily practice, private lessons, intense conditioning, weekend and summer tournaments — the usual habits of an American teenager, disproportionately invested in learning to manipulate rubber balls. One peculiar mental habit I remember having in that whole season of my life is how I would regularly plan out in my mind the most effective possible training regimen I could imagine for a given day, or season, or in preparation for some tournament. Often these imagined regimens were outlandishly intense, far more than I possibly could have accomplished. And, indeed, rarely did I actually accomplish them — a grace, no doubt, given how absurdly self-indulgent and self-absorbed such a daily lifestyle would have been.
The peculiarity of it, though, is that I often seemed to spend more time thinking about the most effective way for me to improve my tennis game than I did playing the game. Even when I did finally pick up the racket each day, it was rarely without the halting self-consciousness that I wasn’t quite training as efficiently or intelligently or intensely as I could. There was almost always an anxious hesitation to start a match before I had, for example, worked through one more cross-court forehand drill. I wanted to make sure that I had all of my bases covered before I got into the contest, that I was as prepared as I could possibly be for any twist the match might take, that I had a concrete plan and the means and capacity to execute it.
I’m still doing this sort of thing, though the material has changed. The questions that eat at me now have more to do with which books I should be reading, whose sermons I should be listening to, whether I’m practicing the most fruitful possible rhythms of spiritual discipline, how I can learn German more efficiently or increase my works-of-mercy count. But the halting self-consciousness, the hemming and hawing, the constant worry that I’m not doing things as well or as effectively as I could still simmers beneath the surface. Contrary to some intuitions, I don’t think this pattern is simply the law rearing its ugly head in different iterations — first in the superficial athletic aspirations of my youth, now in the overtly religious vein of an overzealous young priest — but in either case weighing me down with the generic principle of obligation and expectation. I think there’s a more complicated spiritual dynamic going on here.
On the one hand, it seems to me that the impulse to plan, to envision schedules and regimens for the cultivation of a habit, the future activation of a (material or spiritual) potentiality, is just part of what makes us human beings. We exercise prudential foresight in our lives and in the lives of our families and communities as a part of taking responsibility for them, seeing to it to the best of our ability that they have a reasonable chance of sustainable future flourishing. This is a good, a feature of our being made in the image of a providential God, whose wise foresight holds all the past, present, and future in the piercing gaze of his eternal now, and who had a plan for each and all of us before the foundation of the world.
On the other hand, this impulse to plan can very easily be co-opted by our inborn orientation to self-absorption (which we call original sin) in such a way that it becomes more about usurping the providence of God than reflecting it in our particular and limited sphere of influence. This is what I am doing, I think, when I give so much of my mental energy over to tweaking schedules and regimens that I nearly paralyze myself with hesitating uncertainty: Are you sure you’re doing this quite right? I’m trying so hard to make sure all my bases are covered, to see that I’m ready for any twist that might be thrown at me, to have done everything I can to make sure things turn out okay, that it seems I think the planning will determine what happens in reality. I have moved, in other words, from exercising prudence to usurping providence. Because, of course, the schedules and regimens and visions for the future I have in my mind bear no necessary, and (usually) very little actual, correspondence to what is really going to happen. That perfect correspondence is a property belonging only to the plan in the mind of God.
And so, what I very often need to be told, and what has often come as a liberating rebuke from older and wiser mentors, is an exhortation that follows pretty directly from a firm belief in this providence of God. That exhortation is to get on with it. You’re not going to get it exactly right, so stop overthinking it and just dive in. You may have to thrash a bit here, tread water a bit there, but the river is moving whether you like it or not, and you’ll figure it out as you go — or you won’t, and that will be okay too because it’s God, not you, who is going to make sure you wind up in the safe harbor at the end of the rapids. Another form of this rebuke is Stop taking yourself so seriously, which highlights how self-consciousness is at the heart of this usurpation of providence.
No doubt this is not a word for everyone. Gregory the Great recognized long ago that different people require different kinds of pastoral counsel given the wide range of personal dispositions in the world. Many people (most?) could try for a bit more foresight in the way they order their lives, families, and communities. Those who err on the side of reckless presumption have missed the golden mean of prudence as surely as those who err on the side of timid caution.
But it seems to me, though I haven’t checked Aquinas on this, that a certain measure of recklessness might actually be the safer mistake on this particular spectrum of virtue-vice. None of the apostles, when Jesus came up alongside their fishing boats for the first time with an invitation to follow him, paused for a minute before saying, “Well, that’s an interesting proposition; give me a little while, if you would, to check how this will fit into my plans for the next few years.” They just put their nets down and followed. They got on with it. They dropped their habits, patterns, schedules, and regimens for making sure their lives turned out okay, and decided to listen to and obey Jesus. I’m not even sure they made a decision. The stories don’t seem to suggest that they ever gave a second thought to doing something else.
May we be so reckless.