Doing the best we can, whatever the circumstances

Recently I led a week-long retreat for some 60 people at a renewal centre. Overall, it went very well, though ideally it could have gone better. It could have gone better if, previous to the retreat, I had more time to prepare and more time to rest so that I would have arrived at the retreat well-rested, fully-energetic and able to give this group my total undivided attention for seven days.

Of course, that wasn’t the case. The days leading up to the retreat were consumed by many pressures in my regular ministry; these were long days that kept me preoccupied and tired. Indeed, in the days leading up to the retreat, I had to do many extra hours of work simply to free myself up to lead this retreat. So I arrived for this retreat partly exhausted and carrying with me still a lot of pressures from my regular duties.

In spite of this, the retreat still went pretty well. I had enough energy and focus to make things essentially work. But it wasn’t the best I could do ideally, though it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

Given that confession, it’s fair to ask: didn’t those retreatants have a right to have me arrive for this retreat more-rested, more-prepared, and more-ready to give them my full, undivided attention? Fair enough. They did have that right; except that this was mitigated by the fact that all the people who are daily affected by my regular duties also had that same right. They too had a right to my time, my unfatigued self, my full energies, and my undivided attention.

During that week of retreat, my office also got second-best: I was not giving it my ideal best; but only what I could do, given the circumstances.


I suspect most time-management experts, and not a few counsellors and spiritual directors, would tell me that the reason this tension exists in my life is because of my failure to set clear priorities and be faithful to them and that this sloppy indecisiveness is unfair to everyone on every side. If am over-extended, it’s a fault in my life, pure and simple, which I have a moral responsibility to correct.

But is it really that simple? Are we really meant to have this much control of over our lives? Don’t circumstance and need perennially trump that? Aren’t the generative years of our lives about much more than ensuring our own health and rest? Even if the purpose of our own self-care is not selfish but intended for the better service of others, isn’t that service itself the final culprit? There are needs all over and our resources are finite, isn’t that always a formula for tension?

Circumstance conscripts us and, in the words of Jesus, puts a rope around us and takes where we would rather not go, namely, beyond our comfort, beyond always being adequately rested, and beyond always being in control of our own time-table and energies. Admittedly it’s dangerous to over-extend yourself, except that it’s equally, perhaps more, dangerous to under-extend yourself so as to always have full control of your own energy and commitments and be always well-rested and not over-taxed. We can burn-out, but we can also rust-out. 

This, of course, can easily become a rationalisation for not setting proper priorities and for letting ourselves be non-reflectively buffeted by circumstance. But the opposite can also be a rationalisation used to over-protect our own comfort and rest. That’s the tension, and it’s meant to be a tension. Sometimes we overextend ourselves and sometimes we under-extend ourselves. Most of the people that I admire most in the world suffer from the former, overextension, and, paradoxically, it seems to give them more energy. Jesus, while cautioning proper self-care (“let us go away by ourselves for a while and rest” – Mark 6:31) also tells us that we should pour ourselves out completely for others without worrying too much about whether this will kill us or not.

I had all of this in mind as I struggled while giving a recent retreat, knowing that neither the retreatants nor my office were getting my best energies… though both got the best that I could give, given the circumstance.

Isn’t this a good image for the whole of our lives? We have finite energies, finite time, finite attention and we are constantly swamped by circumstance, need, and pressure. There’s always something!

So we are often caught in a major tension as regards our time, energy and attention. In any given season within our lives, if we are honest, we might have to say: This wasn’t the best I might have done ideally, but it’s the best that I could do, given the circumstance!

Ultimately, this is true for our whole lives. It’s never ideal, but it’s the best we can do, given the circumstance. And that should be more than enough when we stand before our maker in judgment.