A reader asks why the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is celebrated after…
The family calendar after lockdown
The family calendar is clear. For now. Beginning in March, the unprecedented occurred when events and activities came off the calendar without anything to replace them. For my wife and me with our six kids, it has been well over a decade since we have seen anything remotely close to an unpacked weekly schedule. Suddenly, there were no daily texts about pick-ups and drop-offs, no dinners on the fly and no rushing from here to there because, basically, the whole point has been to go nowhere.
Things are opening back up. The upcoming school year is still uncertain, yet as summer winds down, the horizon seems to bend toward the expectation that eventually, everything that has been interrupted will resume again. We will get back to “normal.”
Just because we had grown accustomed to a certain pace of life before societal lockdown does not mean it was normal. A “return to normal” may very well end up being a return to unexamined and unintentional routines. Even a “new normal” is far more likely to be a costume change for the previously commonplace pace of life than anything genuinely new.
Virtually, everyone craves activity right now after the “stay-at-home spring.” The “do-nothing summer” will increase the craving. Many parents would be happy to drop off their kids somewhere — anywhere — for pretty much anything just to get them out of the house. Kids would be happy to oblige. Since we swung abruptly to complete inactivity, it is easy to long and even romanticize about life on the other end where we find overstuffed schedules and calendars of hyperactivity.
Being run by a schedule
But if we think back to last fall or the spring that preceded it, perhaps we will remember what the opposite of cleared calendars was like. What parent hasn’t complained, not so much about running a schedule, but rather being run by a schedule? What child in our typical modern lifestyles has not felt the effects of that — a different set of effects from the monotony and social inactivity of the past few months?
There are always some half-articulated reasons and cloudy rationales for why we had adopted the frenetic, overextending rhythms that were “normal” before March 2020. We want our children to experience as much as they can; we don’t want them to miss out; we want them to be connected, and so on and so forth. The real reason, though, is that it is simply what’s done. It is the basic expectation, the hidden assumption, the standard of modern American childhood and, therefore, of modern American family life. To lack in activities and engagements is to fall short.
In my book “What Matters Most: Empowering Young People for Life’s Big Decisions” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95), I have called this over-programmed, overstuffed “norm” for modern American life the “college preparatory culture.” That embedded, persistent anxiety in young people for not doing enough, not measuring up, that is often set against the looming backdrop of some admissions decision is actually a way to think about modern American life in general, and especially the life of the family. The push is always to do more, because the fear is always of not doing enough and, therefore, not being considered enough. That’s the game, and those are rules.
The irony is that all that activity delivers the opposite of what it promises and leaves you with what you have desperately sought to avoid: sadness. You never feel like you are really anywhere, because you are seemingly everywhere all at once. You constantly feel disconnected precisely while you are always connected to everyone and everything. You feel powerless because the calendar, the schedule, the flow of things, the pace is so powerful.
Incessant activity comes from and leads to acedia: spiritual sadness. It is clandestine sadness. Young people have felt it in their external busyness and internal restlessness. Families have felt it without naming it; or rather, when we did name it, we called it “normal.” Acedia is typically associated with sloth, which seems to have more to do with lethargy than activity. But in modern life, we have stuffed ourselves on unfeeling, incessant activity.
Creating a better culture
That is why this time — right now — is so critical in terms of the character and rhythm of family life, and creating a better culture for our children. Soon enough, all the momentum will ineluctably swing toward the oversaturation of personal and familial schedules. The frenetic pace that preceded lockdown will rush back in. The scattering of time, attention and presence that was “normal” before spring 2020 will become normal again. So much will have changed, and yet nothing will have changed.
This is a chance to change the game, because we have been given a gift. The virus is not the gift. The disastrous economic consequences are not the gift. The stress and strain on our institutions is not the gift. Rather, the gift is the disruption of monotony. All of the incessant activity of modern life, all the overextension, all the chasing after one more thing after another — all of that was really part of one monotonous stream.
In order to heed this gift and make a lasting to change to what’s “normal,” the key is to resist allowing the family calendar to just automatically refill. Instead, make an intentional, affirmative choice for every single thing that goes on the calendar. Scrutinize commitments; reassess activities. Before anything goes on the family calendar as a regular feature, consider the value and the cost.
Take control of the calendar
One of the secrets of life is that the calendar is king. We end up being shaped by what we do repeatedly, according to what is on the calendar. Now is the chance to take control of the calendar. Think of it as if you had cleared out your home and now, starting from empty space, you meticulously decided what would go inside and why.
There is a corollary to this for school leaders — especially Catholic school leaders — who ought to take this opportunity to question everything about their school. They should refrain from putting anything back on their regular schedule unless making a positive, strategic choice for it. They should aim to establish or refine their mission, with something like Fall 2021 or Fall 2022 as the target date for living into the “new normal.”
All too often, our schools and our families fall into some vague character and mission that lack the intentional, habitual commitments that are ordered to what matters most. Schools and families alike are often shaped by what they do repeatedly, what rhythms and schedules they follow, and what kind of and the number of activities that fill them. Those are the kinds of cultures that form young people — and society.
For all the times when a parent or spouse or school leader has thought, “If I could do it all again …,” this might actually be the time to make good on those desires. The gift in the tragedy of this pandemic is a kind of reset in the standard way of doing things. We are going to call what comes after “normal” no matter what it is. Now is the time to shape what “normal” will be.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. You can find him on Twitter at @leodelo2 or online at leonardjdelorenzo.com.