Interruptions, Our Real Work

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

David Steindl-Rast once commented that we tend to be resentful when things interrupt our work until we realize that, often times, the interruptions are our real work.

All too often we get impatient when our plans are disturbed by demands which deflect our energies from what we would ideally like to be doing. Sometimes this is minor (a phone-call in the middle of our favorite T.V. program). But sometimes it’s major - an unwanted pregnancy that radically changes everything, an economic demand that interrupts our chance to be an artist, the demands of family that interrupt our chance to have the kind of social life we’d like, or a loss of health that interrupts our career.

Countless things, big and small, forever derail our agendas, force us to alter our plans, and slowly kill our dreams. Often we are resentful: “If only! If only this hadn’t happened! Now I have to wait to go back to school. Now I’ll never have a chance to fulfill my dream.”

Sometimes in mid-life, or even earlier, this resentment takes a more radical form: “I’ve wasted my life. I’ve been a victim of circumstance, I’ve given in to the demands of others and now I’ll never get the chance to do what I really want to do.”

However, as Steindl-Rast points out, the opposite can also happen. Instead of resentment there can be gratitude because we realize that the interruptions, so unwelcome at the time, were really salvific and, far from derailing us from our real agenda, they were our real agenda.

A few examples: I am sure all of us have known individuals or families where an unplanned pregnancy suddenly turned all plans (economic, career, travel, new house) upside down. Initially there was some bitterness and resentment. Later on the unwanted interruption turned into a much wanted and loved child who helped create a happiness that dwarfs what might have resulted had original plans not been derailed by that interruption.

A.N. Wilson, the British historian, in a biography of C.S. Lewis, describes how Lewis’ life as a teacher and writer was, during virtually all of his productive years, interrupted by the demands of his adopted mother who made him do all the shopping and housework and demanded hours of his time daily for domestic tasks. Lewis’ own brother, Warnie, who also lived in the household (and who generally refused to let his own agenda be so interrupted) laments this fact in his diaries and suggests that Lewis could have been much more prolific had he not had to spend countless hours shopping, walking the dog, and doing domestic chores.

Lewis himself, however, gives us a very different assessment. Far from being resentful about these interruptions, he is grateful for them and suggests that it was precisely these domestic demands that kept him in touch with life in a way that other Oxford Dons (who never had to shop and do housework) were not. Historians like Wilson agree and suggest that it was because of these interruptions, which kept Lewis’ feet squarely on the ground, that Lewis came to insights which appeal so universally.

As these examples show, what’s initially experienced as an unwanted interruption can, in the end, be our real agenda.

This, of course, is not always true. Our lives are not meant to be left to pure chance. We must also actively try to shape our destiny and so it is not always good to simply accept whatever happens. We have God- given talents and so must fight too for our agenda.

But, we have to always look for the hand of providence in our interruptions. These often constitute the conspiracy of accidents through which God guides our lives. If we were totally in control of our own agendas, if we could simply plan and execute our lives according to our own dreams, with no unwanted derailments, I fear that many of us would, slowly and subtly, become selfish and all too soon find our lives empty of the simple joys that come from real family and real community.

The word baptism means derailment. Christ baptizes Peter on the rock when he tells him: “Because you confessed your love for me, your life is no longer your own. Before you said this, you fastened your belt and you walked wherever you liked. Now, others will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.” To submit to love is to be baptized, that is, to let one’s life be forever interrupted. To not let one’s life be interrupted is to say no to love.

C.S. Lewis once said that we will spend most of eternity thanking God for those prayers of ours that he didn’t answer. In the same vein, I suspect we will spend a good part of eternity thanking God for those interruptions that derailed our plans but which baptized us into life, love, meaning, and happiness in a way we could never have ourselves planned or accomplished.

Ron Rolheiser June 11, 2006 Saskatoon, Sk.