Excerpt from The Deeply Formed Life

Contemplative Rhythms for an Exhausted Life by Rich Villodas

In 1901, an American doctor named John Harvey Girdner coined the term Newyorkitis to describe an illness whose symptoms included edginess, quick movements, and impulsiveness. At the time, he said it was a disease which affects a large percentage of the inhabitants of Manhattan Island.” As a native New Yorker, I can’t help but laugh and also gasp at these words. I laugh because Girdner is describing a world long gone — a world without the internet, high-speed cars, and other technological advances that inform everything we do. I gasp, however, because if Newyorkitis is what Girdner observed over 100 years ago, where does that leave us today?

Girdner saw something in 1901 that captured the dangerous pace we often unwittingly live. Our world hasn’t slowed down. Our world continues on faster and busier, and we are reminded that our souls were not created for the kind of speed to which we have grown accustomed. Consequently, we are a people that are out of rhythm, a people with too much to do and not enough time to do it. This illness is no longer a New York phenomenon — it has infected people around the world. And I see it every day in my neighborhood.

Recently on a Saturday morning I was walking through my neighborhood, and as I neared my apartment building an older Jewish man frantically shouted across the street, Are you Jewish?” He waved his hands at me as if he had been stranded on a deserted island and I was his ticket back to civilization. He repeated again as he drew closer, Are you Jewish?” This was a strange question, but it occurred to me I had been growing out my beard, so that might explain the question.

I responded a bit too loudly for an early Saturday morning, No, I’m Puerto Rican.”

Okay, great,” he said as he tried to catch his breath, wiping sweat from his forehead. I need your help. I have to get my ninety-year-old mother downstairs.”

It was a slow morning for me, so with curiosity I followed him into his apartment building. When we got to the elevator, he pointed at the button while distractedly looking in the other direction. Press 6, please,” he said — another strange moment, but I willingly did so. On the slow ride up, we exchanged names and then awkwardly stared at the numbers. His breathing was heavy and labored. I looked at him from the corner of my eye to see him talking under his breath. 

We took the elevator up six stories. Then as he was about to step into his small apartment he shouted, Ma. Rich is here.” 

His mother shouted back with irritation, Who’s Rich?” (This was quite a New York moment).

I slowly stepped in and saw a frail, well-dressed, elderly woman grasping her walker. She had on a large pearl necklace and heels that looked a bit too big for her size. She was grumbling with exasperation things like, I’m so busy…there’s never enough time…how am I going to finish everything?” 

Soon I found out that this mom and son duo were heading to the local synagogue, but he couldn’t press the elevator button due to Sabbath prohibitions. All he wanted me to do was press the elevator button — nothing more, nothing less. 

I look back at that moment and chuckle. But what struck me most in this whole encounter was this elderly woman being stressed out because of the fullness of her life. Here she was, overwhelmed, on the Sabbath of all days, with too much to do at ninety years of age. 

Newyorkitis is alive and well.

Dangerously Depleted

Our lives easily can take us to the brink of burnout. The pace we live is often destructive. The lack of margin is debilitating. We are a worn-out people. In all of this, the problem before us is not just the frenetic pace we live, but what gets pushed out from our lives as a result; that is, life with God. Parker Palmer makes a compelling case that burnout typically does not come about because I’ve given so much of myself that I have nothing left, but rather it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” 

What would it look like to live at a different pace? What if there were a rhythm of life that could instead enable us to deeply connect with God, a lifestyle not dominated by hurry and exhaustion but by margin and joy? As long as we remain captive to a culture of speed, superficiality, and distraction, we will not be the people God longs for us to be. We desperately need a spirituality that roots us in a different way.

From all walks of life and professions, our struggle is all too real: single parents trying to find just a moment of oasis from the incessant bickering of children, doctors caught in the unending pressures of life-and-death choices, and pastors over-functioning to the point of health breakdown. There are schoolteachers whose work never really ends, sleep-deprived students floundering through exams, immigrant small-business owners struggling to make ends meet, and therapists and social workers overwhelmed with the bottomless crises they need to resolve daily. The pace of our lives can be brutal. 

Without denying these realities, we are invited to a different way of being in the world. The late Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama wrote a book entitled Three Mile-an-Hour God. Dr. Koyama was trying to get at the notion that if we want to connect with God, we’d be wise to travel at God’s speed. God has all the time in the world, and as a result God is not in a rush. Thus his claim that God travels at three miles an hour — it’s not an arbitrary figure. On average, humans walk at this pace. And it’s in just such ambling, unhurried, and leisurely moments that we often encounter God. N. T. Wright similarly affirms, It is only when we slow down our lives that we can catch up to God.” This is the paradox of contemplative rhythms.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we go back to dial-up internet service and take boats instead of airplanes to our destinations. Speed has helped to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating. But speed has also caused our connections with God, ourselves, and others to be incredibly superficial. There’s a severe lack of depth in our lives and communities because we have allowed ourselves to be swept up by the way of the world’s pace. The world operates under the influence of addictive speed. And as Dallas Willard famously said, The greatest enemy to the spiritual life is hurry.” 

In the face of this crisis of speed, distraction, and superficial spirituality, there is a way that has been tried and tested through the centuries. It’s a way that has marked my life from the time I became a Christian in my early 20s. It’s the way of the monastic, contemplative life. We live in a time where we must learn from the monastery. We desperately need a way of thinking and living that isn’t captive to the powers of efficiency, speed, and performance. We need a way of life that lives according to a different understanding of time and space. We need the treasures of monastic imagination.

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Excerpted from The Deeply Formed Life. Copyright © 2020 by Richard A. Villodas Jr. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Rich Villodas is the author of The Deeply Formed Life” and Brooklyn-born lead pastor of New Life Fellowship, a large, multiracial church with more than 75 countries represented in Elmhurst, Queens. Visit him online at www​.richvil​lo​das​.com and @richvillodas

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

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