My husband and I had been married for eight years when I gave birth to our first child. Two years later, his brother was born. Eighteen months later, their sister. And less than two years after that, we started the adoption process and soon brought home a daughter.
"You're busy," people would remark, eyeing me with my children. I never knew whether the comment was tinged with pity or admiration.
Yes, I was busy. But, more significantly, I was evolving into a different person. No longer the dreamy, walk-taking, tea-drinking, poem-writing person who baked her own bread, I had become a woman barreling down the aisles at the grocery store, baby in sling, toddlers fastened into cart. After years of toting children on my hip, my forearms had begun to resemble Popeye the Sailor's.
And I wasn't just busy with the kids. Like many "at-home" mothers, I had part-time work and volunteer responsibilities at church and my children's schools. Meanwhile, I was making Herculean efforts to stay close to my husband and friends. I found myself setting up interviews for a newspaper story, ordering curriculum, and making reminder calls from my cell phone in the grocery store—while, of course, keeping the kids in sight, buying food for the week, and stopping to compare the prices of varieties of pears.
In short, I learned to multitask.
In recent years, of course, we've learned that it is actually impossible to multitask. Study after study after study chide us for believing we can make our brains do more than one thing at a time. "A core limitation [of the human brain] is an inability to concentrate on two things at once," says René Marois, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. When we are multitasking, we are actually just switching from one task to another at astonishing speed. It's unproductive, distracting, and dangerous to multitask, we are told.
But over the years, I became something of a multitasking expert. And I began to suffer from it. I answered e-mail from my phone while waiting for a freight train to pass. Before picking the kids up from school, I'd troll around the neighborhood, choosing a parking space based on whether I could find a Wi-Fi signal in order to get an additional few minutes of work done.
I felt, to use the old expression, that I was drinking from a fire hose. Equally compelled to answer unimportant messages ("Thanks for letting us use your car-top carrier. We left it on your front porch") as more critical ones ("Can you remind me where I'm supposed to be for the photo shoot this afternoon?"), I was losing perspective. I was also finding it hard to hear God, what with all the text and e-mail alerts on my phone, the call waiting signal, and my kids' voices creating a low roar.
Then, about a year and a half ago, I called an Episcopal monk who lives in Boston, hoping to get a quote for a story I was writing. The day had begun at breakneck speed. Unfinished homework, early morning orchestra rehearsal, a fresh batch of e-mails that demanded responses, two loads of laundry, and on and on.
On first hearing the monk's voice, I almost rolled my eyes—he sounded comically serene. But after a few minutes, I felt myself relax a little.
He told me that his work, as a monk, was to listen to God. Simply that. He'd taken a vow, he said.
"A vow to listen?"
"A vow of obedience."
Oh, I thought, you can't obey until you hear what you're supposed to do. Duh.
"To obey is to listen," he said, as if he were responding to my thoughts. He said that the word's etymology reveals that "obedience" is less about complying with rules and more about listening. Deep listening.
The Hebrew word is shama: "to hear, to listen." Samuel uses the word, declaring that "To obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22).
In Greek the word is hupakouo, or "to listen under."
The Latin for obedience is oboedire: "to hear or listen towards."
In Old English, it's herknen.
So, he said, to obey God is to listen deeply to him—or hearken his voice.
"The monastic life is a culture of silence," he said. "It's not that there's nothing to be said, it's that there is so much to be heard." He said that the practice of silence stands in strong opposition to a culture that is "obsessed with multitasking."
"Multitasking has been normalized. It is costly to the soul," he said.
I asked him what advice he gives to people whose calling doesn't lead them into the sanctuary of a monastery. "Do one thing at a time. As much as possible, do only one thing."
Doing one thing at a time is a terribly, wonderfully, old-fashioned idea. Since talking to him, I've been trying to break my multitasking habit, bit by bit. Often when I'm alone in the car, I just drive. I don't check e-mail at red lights. I don't listen to the radio. I just sit still. And the more I practice the lost art of doing one thing at a time, the more I hear the voice of God. Offering peace and clarity. Nudging me to interact with a person. Infusing me with an idea. Reminding me of his presence.
Weaning myself from rabid multitasking is a long process. But I'm plugging away at it—not ultimately because I know it's bad for productivity, causes car accidents, or makes me feel stress, though all these things might be true. I do it to draw closer to the one who is quietly with me, waiting to speak to me in a moment of silence.
Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).
Now there's one thing to do.
Jennifer Grant is a journalist, freelance writer, and mother of four who writes a column and feature stories for the Chicago Tribune. She has written for Her.meneutics about Lady Gaga. Find her online at JennifercGrant.com.
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