Earlier this winter I started participating in our church’s weekly women’s group, which was finishing up The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. The subject that week was cultivating stillness and calm. Our priest brought up both Psalm 46 and the Mary and Martha story from Luke in which Martha is scolded by Jesus for being “distracted by her many tasks” instead of taking time to listen to him (Luke 10:40 NRSV).
The discussion topic really hit home for me. I felt confronted (by the text, not the group) and I wanted to push back. Not against the very real culture of anxiety in our society or against those who sell busy-ness as a virtue. Not against the benefits of stillness and calm. But I do want to push back against the common-enough implication that those of us who struggle to find the calm, to quiet our anxieties, to still our bodies are somehow less-than-ideal, that we lack the self-discipline to just try harder.
Please sit still and calm down.
Are you paying attention to me?
Why are you so fidgety?
Stop fussing with that.
Have you ever said anything similar to your child? Or did you hear those words from someone you loved when you were young? I bet they were often uttered with a tone of exasperation, frustration, or disappointment.
We are frequently counseled — and often admonished — in the Bible to “be still” and to focus on The Important Things. It is in these moments of stillness and focus, we are told, that we can better know God, listen to Jesus, and more easily let the Spirit work in us.
Easier said than done, of course (though little of what we’re asked to do as Christians is easy). For some of us, it is a more difficult task than for others. I want to be able to pause and listen for God’s voice. I want to be able to quiet my mind. I want to be able to focus on the task at hand, whether it is taking care of a task or engaging in prayer.
My thoughts are constantly bouncing from one thing to another and I will start one task and 15 minutes later be knee-deep into something else without any recollection how I got there. This might sound relatively innocuous, but in my case, it started to take a toll.
Why can’t you ever finish what you start?
You are so disorganized and messy.
I can’t help it. Why can’t I help it? What’s wrong with me?
Finally—at the age of 42—I was diagnosed with ADHD. This was a retrospective diagnosis going back to my childhood, but the condition had worsened in recent years for various reasons.
Suddenly, things started to make sense. I also became more aware of the messages I was delivering to my own child, while watching him struggle with stillness, focus, and self-control. He has told me before, “Mama, I can’t help it.” (Based on the diagnostic criteria and our personal observations, I strongly suspect that he might also meet the standard for an ADHD diagnosis, though my husband and I are taking a “watchful waiting” approach.)
I wanted to write this essay for this audience because, as Christians, we often carry a strong sense of what we believe is virtuous and righteous based on a combination of biblical, cultural, and personal understandings. The failure to meet those standards is often perceived as a failure of will by those of us who repeatedly hear negative messages (even ones that are delivered with positive intent) and the guilt and shame can start to build.
I heard these messages as a child, and as an adult I delivered the same to my own child many times. It wasn’t until I received a diagnosis that helped explain things that I was able to give us both some much needed grace. This is how we are, this is how we were made.
Should we slow down and try to do less? Yes. Should we strive to practice stillness and help our children “calm down” to the best of our abilities? Yes. Stillness is beautiful. Focus is an amazing thing. But I’m learning to measure these qualities with a new, more forgiving yardstick and to acknowledge that we can *also* hear God’s voice through the din of our sometimes chaotic minds (and bodies).
[Image Credit: Public Domain via NeedPix.]
Virginia Nagel says
I am deaf, and often get criticized for “not paying attention.” It isn’t so much that I am not paying attention…I find it difficukt, iften, to know WHAT I am supposed to be paying attention to, when I cannot hear the speaker.
Mary E> Lambdin says
I heard all of these comments when I was young and I used them on my daughter. Thank you for your insightful comments. This was an excellent commentary and very down to earth.
Carolyn Crouch says
I am so happy for you, Desi! It is never too late for an ADHD diagnosis to bring clarity and opportunity to one’s life. (Both my daughter and husband have ADHD, the latter not diagnosed until age 70.) How you will be still may not comport with traditional Christian practices, but it will be your experience of still (perhaps your family’s experience of still) and it will connect you to God. It’s likely been doing so all along, just differently. Blessings to you and your family as you embark on the rich, always-eventful journey that is life with ADHD.
Thank you for your comment. It had been heartening to find others with later-in-life ADHD diagnoses and to get their perspectives. I agree that what still = for me is different than what is expected, but it still counts.
Cindy Yanchury says
This really resonates with me. I’m constantly on the move! In seminary I often felt “less than” because the idea of sitting still for hours at a time was more like torture than blessing. When I found the book “Prayers for People Who Can’t Sit Still” I finally found people like me. Thank you for this post!
I will have to look up this book! I’m glad you liked the post.