The novel A Gentleman in Moscow tells of Count Alexander Rostov. As communists tighten control of Russia in 1922, Rostov’s aristocratic blood virtually guarantees he’ll be executed. But during his trial, the Court recalls a poem Rostov wrote years before on behalf of the working class. Rostov’s life is spared, but he is sentenced to spend the rest of his days confined to Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. If ever seen beyond its walls, he’ll be shot on site.
And so Rostov embarks on a lifetime of limitation. The man who previously ventured across continents now cannot walk to the corner market. Accustomed to soaring ceilings, he now resides in a cramped attic.
Yet day by day, a marvel unfolds. Rostov doesn’t only survive. Amid the constraints of his new life, he thrives. He forges deep friendships and grows beyond himself. He loves and is loved. He transforms others’ lives and is himself transformed. One cannot help suspecting that three decades of boundedness did not shrink Alexander Rostov. If anything, limitation made his life larger.
Like most of us, the boundaries of my own life have grown much smaller in recent days. A long-planned work trip overseas is a no-go. The church where I was to speak last Sunday canceled services, as did my home church. A conference that I and many others spent the last year planning is postponed. For people all over the globe, COVID-19 has dramatically shrunk much of what we view to be essential, from free movement to public gatherings to financial resources.
Amidst the changes and uncertainties, anxieties rise. Some stem from the obvious concerns, from illness to job loss, fueled by a constant flow of ominous news reports. The loss of routine also contributes, leaving us disjointed and emotionally weary. Cancellation of school leaves many parents feeling even more confined. Taken together, this new lifestyle can feel oppressively limiting, like a well-decorated jail cell.
Ironically, these very constraints offer the rarest commodity of all: unexpected time. It is a gift pregnant with potential. If we can find the opportunity hidden amidst the limitations, we may just look back upon the season ahead as among life’s most meaningful.
For that to happen, however, we’ll need to choose it. We must lean into the moment, much like the marvelous Italians who dusted off their accordions and tambourines to make music from the balconies of their drab apartments.
How to Choose
Throughout the last decade, my work colleagues and I have labored virtually. Here’s one thing we’ve learned: when external structure is low, our intentionality needs to be high. If we don’t actively decide what we want a day to hold, we’re at the mercy of a hundred things other than what matters most.
How do we choose the threads we’d like to weave through the days ahead? I’d suggest three simple elements. Nothing remarkable here. Just start with a quiet half-hour, coffee and a journal.
Ponder. Consider what we want. Dream a little. If my calendar has some unexpected openings, how might I want to use that time?
Prioritize. Decide what matters most and what experiences we’d most like to look back on. When this unique season ends, what things will I be especially glad I did?
Plan. Put it on paper—a simple, flexible description of how we’ll do it. Where and how can I make those priorities part of the unconventional days ahead?
Of course, the days to come will no doubt hold much that’s unplannable. But let us state explicitly what’s likely to fill the void if we don’t plan: more screen time. Lots more. Our screens already pull at us with magical powers. Long hours at home and COVID-19 anxiety will only boost that gravity toward our devices. To entertain ourselves. To catch the latest on the virus’s spread. To distract the kids. To soothe unsettled nerves. (Little wonder a neighbor messaged our neighborhood email group today offering to expand our Internet bandwidth “during this time of isolation.”)
That’s certainly not at all to say that movies, news and other tech-based leisure shouldn’t be part of what we choose in the days ahead. No doubt, technology will be a lifeline for both work and education. But we can choose the place of our screens and their boundaries. We must. Otherwise, screen time will fill every crack and crevice of life, like jungle vines overtaking an ancient temple. If that happens, we’ll look back on this time as having been far less than it could have been.
I have found block scheduling—mapping out the day with chunks of time set aside for specific purposes—to be particularly helpful in avoiding inefficient multitasking. Setting clear boundaries for my technology also helps me stay focused on what each time block is for. For example, I turn my phone to airplane mode 30-minutes prior to bed. That time is for winding down mind and heart, and conversation with my wife, Rachel. When I wake, I don’t re-activate the phone until after morning devotions and breakfast with our five kids.
Six Ideas to Consider
If not more screen time, with what should we fill voids created by canceled events and social distancing? That’s for each of us to decide. But here are some categories worth consideration.
The Outdoors. How about morning hikes or evening strolls? As Scripture describes, creation reveals the character and wonder of God himself (Ps. 19:1-3, Rom. 1:20). Perhaps that is why studies have found that time outdoors decreases anxiety, brings down heart rates, boosts concentration and attention, among other benefits. (Add to this the immense benefits to both body and mind of simply getting out of your chair and moving.)
Creating. How long has it been since you made something you didn’t have to? You may be no virtuoso. But if you dig down to your 5-year old self, you’ll recall how delightful it is to create, even imperfectly. Paint or draw. Make music. Color a coloring book. Write a poem or tell a story. Even better, do it together with kids or a friend.
Solitude. My wife Rachel and I each go away individually for 24-hours alone with God twice a year. Admittedly, solitude is jarring to senses accustomed to constant stimulation. But when our hands are open, we inevitably find precious gifts in prayer, reflection, journaling, worship, and thanksgiving. Choosing time alone will look different for everyone, especially now. This season may offer a chance to explore this and other spiritual disciplines in ways you never have before. (John Marc Comer’s free booklet “How to Un-hurry” provides a wonderful guide for starting out.)
Family. Close quarters for long stretches can bring out the worst. Our muscles of patience and forgiveness will be tested, strained and—potentially—grown. (How about memorizing Colossians 3:12-15 together?) It’s also worth remembering the clichéd-yet-revealing truth that the elderly often wish they’d spent more quality time with those they loved. Here’s your chance, from coffee conversations to a game of monopoly.
Learning. Virtually every kid in America will be schooling from home for the foreseeable future. Why not join them? From the forgotten book on your nightstand to the TED talk you’d wanted to watch and discuss as a family, here’s the time.
Service. Fears keenly tend to turn our thoughts small and inward. So re-directing our attention to the needs of others may take extra effort. But what could make this time rich and meaningful more than helping a widow with yardwork or inviting a lonely person for a meal? (If you’re under quarantine, you can still share the love with notes, phone calls, emails and prayer.)
The Freedom of Constraint
To be clear, all this isn’t about just adding to-dos to homebound lives. Most of all, we must feel the profound truth that life holds immense gifts despite—and sometimes even because of—constraint. As Justin Whitmel Early explores in his marvelous book , The Common Rule, the good life doesn’t come from the ability to do anything we want but in choosing what we were made for.
Thankfully, none of this is new to the Christian. We serve the one who willingly embraced all the constraints of flesh, “taking the very nature of a servant.” Those who follow him can choose, as Paul did, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone . . .” (1 Cor. 9:19)
This is not to say that the season ahead of us will be easy. Many will no doubt find in it the most difficult challenges they’ve ever encountered, from personal illness or loss of loved ones to financial ruin. But history suggests that even the most biting of constrictions—from the stocks that bound Paul and Silas, to Solzhenitsyn’s gulag, to Mandela’s Robben Island, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birmingham jail—offer priceless gifts to those with eyes to see and hands to receive, just like Count Rostov’s hotel. If that is so, the constraints we now face may have gifts for us, too, if we choose to receive them.
Jedd Medefind lives in Falls Church, Va. with his wife Rachel and five children. He serves as president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
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