As you go through your day, do you feel like you are on stage every minute, striving to give a stellar performance?
I once heard an engaging talk by a theology professor, Tom Boyd. He noted how we may hear someone is “a practicing Christian” or “a practicing Buddhist.” He then explored the difference between the words “performance” and “practice.”
Think about playing the piano. If we are performing a piece and make a mistake, we may be embarrassed and frustrated. But if we are practicing the same piece and miss a note, we don’t worry about it; “I’m just practicing,” we tell ourselves. Performing can make us tense, afraid and nervous. But if we are practicing, we are relaxed, open and curious.
He went on to say some people make their spiritual life a performance, rather than a true practice. They feel great internal pressure to always do the right thing and think the right thoughts, and to appear blameless before anyone who may be watching. That’s a lot of work, a lot of pressure.
I remember fondly a professor in seminary, Chris Becker. He grew up in Holland and had lived through World War 2. Seeing so much suffering led him to become a Biblical scholar. He was brilliant and flamboyant. He smoked a cigarette using a cigarette holder, something I’d only seen in movies. He often had a stylish scarf tossed around his neck. He was known to never turn down an invitation to have a beer with a student. He was popular not only because he was brilliant but because he was deeply passionate about life.
One day a student asked him a question about how a clergy person should live. It touched something in Chris. He took a long pause as he searched for a response. He looked at the student, then all of us earnest seminarians. “Please,” he said with heart-felt concern, “Don’t let your life become an ordeal of piety.”
I’ve been an ordained for 40 years, and I’ve never forgotten his plea: “Don’t let your life become an ordeal of piety.”
If we are living our life as an “ordeal of piety,” it may be because we see it as a performance, not a practice. Our spiritual journeys are meant to make us aware of the choices we make as we go through the day. But hopefully we are centered in a sense of gratitude for what we’ve been given and the path we are on. This should put us more at ease. From an inner awareness of blessing, we don’t have to prove anything; we don’t have to perform. We can practice responding to grace as best we can.
The same perspective can be useful in other areas of our life.
If you are in a relationship, how are you approaching it? is it a performance in which you must do everything right? Or is it a daily practice where you are always learning how to live with and love each other?
How about parenting – is it a performance you’re being graded on by someone, especially yourself? Or is it a practice in which you are constantly learning while trying to do your best in new and challenging situations?
Clearly there are times to “perform.” I know if I’m “performing” a wedding, I want to do my very best. And if you are a musician, actor or athlete, there is a special excitement in doing as well as you possibly can when you perform. But it’s helpful to remember most of the time, we can simply practice doing whatever we are doing.
I’ve been playing golf since I retired. Recently I ruptured the bicep tendon in my right arm. After tests and consultations, I began physical therapy. When I asked the therapist about playing golf, he said I could try it and see how it felt – but be careful not to try to do too much.
After a month I decided to see how it felt to play just 9 holes. In my mind I said, “Take it easy. Don’t push it. You’re just practicing.”
On the second hole, my drive took one bounce and disappeared into the hole. It was my very first hole in one. I was shocked. I played well the rest of the day.
A week later I came out again, convinced I could build on my success. My expectations were higher, and I began pressing. It was a disaster. I played poorly all day.
We can bear in mind the distinction between performing and practicing and choose which approach we want to use in different situations. Who wants life to be an “ordeal of piety?”