Time Out of Mind

This weekend I was in distinguished company, interviewed in The Times by Lucy Cavendish about the challenges that face high-earning women if their marriages break down.

In the same newspaper the Chief Rabbi, whose column I always enjoy reading, wrote about the importance of “making time”. Lord Sacks observed that technology, far from making life easier, has had the opposite effect:

 “When I was studying economics in the 1960s, the received wisdom was that with automation, we would all be working 20-hour weeks and our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. In reality, the working week has grown longer, not shorter. And with emails, texts, smartphones and the like, we can be on call 24/7. In terms of stress and control over our time, are we freer than we were, or less so? My guess is, less so.

I agree that technology has served to make us more anxious and stressed. We don’t make sufficient time for things which matter in our busy lives. Instead, we concentrate on responding only to the immediate, here and now. This hit a particular chord because a friend of mine, a fellow lawyer who works too hard and takes little time off, has recently lost a parent, and Ive been thinking how even those who work the hardest, need to take time out, even more so probably in these fast days of high speed technology, not least to grieve and to come to terms with a shattering loss.  I too have had to accept that parents arent around for ever. So how do we take time out and especially at points in our lives when our own welfare requires it?

Most faiths do encourage us to take a step back, to concentrate on spirituality and ritual, and to step off the relentless treadmill of the 21st century. Coming at the end of Passover week, when festivals were also celebrated by millions of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Lord Sacks’ comments were timely. What is it about religion that requires followers to stop and think, perform rituals, rebuild themselves spiritually and then start again – all at the same time? And why now? Are we all in need of the spiritual equivalent of a spring clean?

Christians give up certain foods for Lent and then start out again, after the Holy Week of Easter. There is the Buddhist New Year and at the same time the birth of the Hindu Monkey God Hanuman.  There’s also the Baha’i Festival of Ridván, which starts on April 21st and lasts for 12 days. Preparation for the week-long Passover festival is certainly exhausting, what with spring cleaning the home from top to bottom, then changing all the food and crockery for a week. Saying goodbye to bread for a week is just the start. Afterwards, having eaten different food off different plates, the return to normalcy brings with it a sense of renewal. (And how good bread tastes!)

So thinking about stopping and making time, and following prescribed religious rituals, I asked myself some questions.

Why do I do it?

Because I do.

Is it easy?

No, it is hard work.

 Is it necessary?


Is it enjoyable?

Yes, overall – although at Passover there are fewer foods.

Does it make you think about your material values? 

Yes, because you miss staple foods that you assume will always be there. You get a sense of your own mortality.

Do you think of bygone years? 

Yes: you remember when you were a child celebrating Passover. You notice how the rituals and traditions have defined you and ultimately made you who you are.

When you are Jewish, some form of ritual is there to govern everything you do. It isn’t just about saying prayers or attending synagogue. There is a prescribed ritual for everything, and returning to my main theme, even how a person should be cared for after death, by volunteers who quickly come to care for the person who has died, in the most kind and respectful way, from the moment of death and all the way to the grave. You are never alone.

If you want to be observant within the Jewish faith, you can. But no-one forces you, no-one judges you and you can do as much or as little as you like. The choice is yours and there is no pressure. Everybody seems to find their own level in terms of both spirituality and observance of ritual. The trick is getting the balance right. It’s easy to appear outwardly religious. But inside, the balance isn’t always quite right.

So I do what I want to do, acknowledge my faults and think about how I can self improve! I don’t dress differently. I’m not a great attendee of the synagogue. I do try not to do much on Saturday, our Sabbath day. I used to, but now I genuinely welcome the rest. I feel much better for it, doing little or nothing once a week. I am more observant than some and far less observant than others – and I’m comfortable with that. It keeps me more in touch with my own view of the meaning of faith and of my family, and it adds colour to my life. I hope that someday my son will welcome me to his home on Passover, and then I can make more time and put my feet up! It must be said, his cooking this week has been second to none. Overall, I do understand that making time makes sense, but how much time I set aside in my own busy life, is my choice.

My friend Mark (who is not Jewish) once told me that his 85-year-old grandmother had passed away the day before.  He said her funeral might not take place for some time and how he wished they did things like we do. Well, it’s pretty quick! Someone who died yesterday may even be buried on the same or next day, in a plain coffin following a simple, prescribed service. No-one is treated differently. The principal mourners, still in deep shock, will sit Shiva for a week afterwards. Surrounded by friends and family to comfort them, they will recite Kaddish for the deceased person as they recover from their immediate grief.  After that, Kaddish will continue to be said by a bereaved person. For a parent, it is said for almost a year as a parent has given you life and is deemed irreplaceable. For other close relatives, it is said for a month. Time is spent differently.

The ritual is unchanged, is thousands of years old and applies around the world. Watching a recent episode of Homeland on TV, I noted how the character Saul, a Jewish CIA agent married to a Hindu, perfectly recited Kaddish for a Muslim when he learned of the man’s unexpected death. Rituals, like faiths, can transcend boundaries and can also be comforting not only for the bereaved but for those who support them. They are spending time helping.

Some people of course do reject the order and self-discipline which religious rituals impose. They regard it as utterly pointless and meaningless, especially if they are agnostic or atheist. They may have closed minds, may even appear to be heartless and cruel in their rejection of the practices of religion, not understanding these practices in the same way as those who do.  Overall my mind is open. I am prepared to believe that despite all the logic, the high intellectual arguments, that actually, Im just the tiniest speck of humanity, I dont know it all, I never will, and Im content to wait and see. On occasions, I do think even unknowingly, we need help to stop the stress of our various different lives. Sometimes we do benefit the help and discipline of a specific way forward, a marked-out path – even if we don’t wish to recognise it, especially with a death.

A few years ago I went to see a non-observant Jewish friend of mine, a couple of days after he had lost his father. He is a logical thinker, who has rejected the existence of God. The Jewish funeral had taken place and he was at home, because he felt unable to work. He told me how he needed to be “doing something” because he felt disoriented. He was restless and edgy and didn’t know what to do. I didn’t say anything to him because it wasn’t my place.  But it made me think about how ritual, with its prescribed order, helps a bereaved family. It gives them a defined way of coping with a death, channelling their grief and giving them no time to dread a funeral, no limbo before or after the funeral, and a process to grieve with others and to recover.

Above all, such rituals oblige people to stop what they are doing and make time. As Lord Sacks notes:

“Life needs its pauses, its chapter breaks, if the soul is to have space to breathe.” 


DT - April 17, 2012 at 9:22pm

Hi Marilyn

A very thought provoking article.

Without it being pointed out – it’s all too easy not to ‘take stock’.

I’ve got a new job recently and although I always read/follow the blog, I haven’t contributed as I’ve failed to heed Lord Sacks’ wise words!

Still love the blog even if I don’t contribute as much for a bit.

Marilyn Stowe - April 17, 2012 at 9:28pm

Welcome back I’ve missed you.
You always make such kind intelligent comments and they are greatly appreciated.
Take care, best of luck in your new job and don’t over do it!

DT - April 17, 2012 at 9:38pm

Thank you – I wanted to explain.

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