A friend of ours owns six Siamese cats. They can be quite noisy. But they have learnt that when the phone rings, there is no use demanding attention because their owner will be otherwise occupied for a while. They have also learnt the significance of various phrases that indicate the coming to an end of the call and these inevitably lead to the starting up of the noise again. Unwilling to be defeated, Linda has discovered that she can gain some quiet to read the paper or get some p & q, simply by holding the phone to her ear.
As we go through each day, there are a number of responses we make out of habit. It would exhaust us if we could not, for part of the time, rely on our reflex-actions and let our behaviour be guided by routine rather than thought. The danger is that just as the cats are fooled by our friend’s deception, so our conditioned responses to those we live with, or to routine situations at work, can become inappropriate and empty.
When God told
Abraham, at the age of 75, to leave Haran and set out for a new home, this was but the first of many times in the Bible when God urges a break from routine. Often the challenge was resisted but the change God offered was always for the better.
Perhaps today we could achieve a deeper beauty by being open to new possibilities in our lives and checking occasionally to make sure that, if any of our behaviour is automatic, the habit is one we feel happy with.
IBM has just produced a blueprint of how your office might look in twenty years time. As soon as you walk in, your computer will automatically project your choice of soothing images onto the walls; when you sit down, sensors in the chair will tell the boss you’ve arrived. You’ll talk to your computer rather than type and it will be programmed to know what you’re doing and whether it’s appropriate to interrupt you with emails or instant messaging.
It’s this, says researcher Jennifer Lai, which is the key to greater productivity – cutting down on the increasing numbers of interruptions that new technology is bringing. That would echo feelings most people have, whether they work in an office or not. We just get our day organised, perhaps squeezing in that extra task which surely we’ll manage to get done, when something occurs which throws all our plans awry. An interruption to what we had intended to do can be very frustrating.
One of the less obvious characteristics of Jesus’ life is that many of the best known incidents occurred when he was on the way to do something else. People were frequently interrupting his plans. He seems to have shown no sense of hurry or frustration when this happened. Indeed such interruptions led to some important conversations and life-changing events.
Perhaps today we could try being more willing to allow ourselves to be side-tracked from our pre-planned programme. Such diversions might well lead to greater ‘productivity’ than the activities we’d anticipated. Technological interruptions are often just a distraction; unexpected changes to our routine can be very creative.
A recent Health and Safety memo to BBC staff seemed to state the obvious. Entitled ‘Revolving Security Door User Instructions’, it began "Follow these simple steps each time you use the doors: to enter the secure space move directly into the revolving door compartment”. The memo followed an incident at the BBC's offices in Birmingham in which a worker cracked a toenail when her foot got trapped.
What the memo said about how to move out of revolving doors is not reported. In life though, where we have got ourselves into situations which just seem to go round and round, it’s getting out that’s the real challenge. Whether it’s at work, in our relationships with friends or colleagues, or simply in the routine of our days, we can sometimes feel trapped, see a life beyond what restrains us, and yet be unable to take that step out towards it.
Someone to help us through the door can be a great help. Jesus frequently helped people break out of a cycle of unhappiness – a woman going round and round looking for healing, a former soldier rampaging frantic round a graveyard, a tax collector uncomfortable in his role. For Christians, faith can help in the task of seeing ways out of stifling repetitiveness and in finding the courage to make the required moves.
For everybody, Christian or not, help and advice from someone else can be enormously valuable when trying to escape from continuously going round in circles. Each situation has its own difficulties and there’s no memo with simple answers, but seeking support from someone we trust can often be what enables us to take that step into a new kind of life.
Routinetics, created by medical insurance company PruHealth, is the latest keep fit technique. Dusting, hoovering or even putting away the shopping are said to be better than the gym. "Routinetics is ideal because it offers practical solutions for people who want to incorporate simple exercises into their normal day”says TV presenter Tania Bryer who features in a new video. Exercises include using tin cans as weights to improve muscle tone, taking the stairs two at a time and carrying our supermarket shopping in a basket rather than taking a trolley.
Making life harder than it already is won’t appeal to everyone. For many people, tiredness, of body, mind and heart, is an almost permanent experience. But getting physically fitter can make us weary less easily and incorporating exercise into our daily activities can improve our sense of well-being.
It is also occasionally true that when extra challenges interfere with our normal routine we grow stronger spiritually and emotionally. Responding to a crisis or obstacle with determination and courage can be a source of greater robustness in the future. Such things often feel like annoying intrusions but they can be means of growth.
Sometimes, however, these additional demands on us are not going to be creative. Where we have a choice about taking on extra physical work or getting involved in situations, there is sometimes an internal pressure to do it which comes from a desire to please. We put ourselves out because it helps us deal with that inner voice which tells us people will only like us if we exhaust ourselves for them. We may only be able to like ourselves when we feel we are working hard to justify our existence.
Let’s today be glad where our routine is broken by things which help us grow but avoid taking on extra work which will only perpetuate our feeling that we’re not doing enough.
Cows will soon be able to milk themselves. No more being poked and prodded into a windswept barn so they can be milked twice a day whether they like it or not. Scottish ice-cream supplier Mackie's is to invest £600,000 on seven robotic systems to use on its herd of 500 Jersey cows.
The animals will have to pass through the milking units to get to their feeding troughs. As they walk through, the machine will tell from a tag on the cow whether it needs to be milked. If it does, the animal will be steered towards the automatic laser-guided milking station. Once trained to use the machine, it will be up to the cows to decide whether to allow themselves to be milked.
It’s probable that not all cows will be pleased with their new freedom. Like many human beings, there may well be those who prefer a routine kind of life where their need to make decisions is kept to a minimum. On the other hand, the fact that cows which choose their milking time are happier is evidenced by their higher yield of milk
It’s as well for human happiness too that, beyond a certain level of prosperity, there are large areas of our lives where we can make our own decisions. Over regimentation by other people can undermine our spirit. But if we had to make every decision about every detail of our lives, we would be exhausted.
Let’s be grateful today for the basic structure of our daily routine. Sometimes determined by work or family commitments, sometimes of our own making, it can occasionally feel tedious. But the energy it saves can create extra vitality so that our other decisions can be taken with imagination and courage.
I heard recently of someone who had a small basement area in their home shelved and cupboarded. The idea was that they would take down there all the bits and pieces that lay around the rest of the house but which were no particular use. This removal of all the extraneous material from their living space was designed to restore the neat and tidy feel they wanted for their home.
It never happened. The new cupboards remained unused. When it came to it, the family discovered how important the detritus of their lives was. It was part of who they were and it was more part of the comfort and familiarity of their environment than they had realised. They didn’t, in the end, want it put out of sight in the basement.
This might be true of us too, and not just in relation to our physical surroundings. Often we get frustrated with all the bits and pieces that occupy our time and our emotional energy, as if, without them, our lives would be much tidier and more fulfilling. Some tidying up of the routine of how we live is no bad thing. But we can sometimes be over-critical of ourselves and our inability to keep our inner selves, our relationships and our use of time in perfect order. We may wish we could banish this untidiness to the basement of our lives but we would in fact feel lost without it.
Let’s today delight in the slightly chaotic yet familiarly comfortable nature of the lives we lead.