Erica Brown

Running On Empty

Many of us remember Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” as a theme song of adolescence. He created an image for us of moving blindly ahead on long, bleak expanses of highway and made it a metaphor about life. Today we might move from roads to treadmills, but the sentiment stays the same.

“I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels/I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through/Looking into their eyes I see them running too.” I thought of the song last week. After a long day in another state, I got to my car in an airport parking lot; the “E” for empty was lit. I was out of gas.

That light served as a powerful metaphor for the week I had. In reality it was a string of weeks. There were bat mitzvah parties, dinners, fundraisers, annual meetings and author talks. I listened to people in car rides to and from events, and during the schmooze-fest part of the events themselves. Everyone was complaining about the breathlessness of the season. No one seemed to be having a good time. Or if they were having a good time, they were looking forward to not having a good time the next night.

A few years ago, a young man in his 20s who is active in the Jewish community took me aside and said, “I just don’t understand the way we work. We wonder why it’s so hard to recruit people for events, but we never look at the calendar. I could go to a Jewish event for people my age every night of the week and never run out of something to do. We’re oversaturating the market.” It was just like Browne said, “…I see them running too.” Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe our entire community is running on empty.

There is an irony in all of this. The mitzvah to sanctify time by declaring the new month is the first commandment we were given as a Jewish nation. Our job was to figure out the calendar as a primary human responsibility of organizing and managing ourselves. This taxonomy of time is designed to help us understand that when it comes to the pace of life, we’re in control. We set the agenda. If we are becoming victims to time, then we’re to blame.

The sacred mess that is often our local community calendar is the consequence of having so many organizations, each of which needs events, meetings and fundraisers to sustain its individual mission. We try to coordinate so that events don’t collide, but we don’t think that a free day should be just that: free, with nothing on either side — with no expensive ad to put in a journal that only honorees and guests will read; no chicken dinner with a fish and vegetarian offering to not get a tax deduction on; and no gift that may soon be returned or exchanged for something that someone actually wants.

Free is not only a “price”; it’s also an expression of redemption, a sense that our time belongs to us to spend as we see fit so that when we go to an event, we really want to be there. And we’re not seeing all the same people we saw a few hours or days earlier now all dressed up and uncomfortable.

In the aggregate, our breathless community schedule is hurting us.  People just don’t want to come out. Most dinners and happy occasions today lack originality and spark. You know we’re in trouble when an organization makes a dinner where you pay not to come, and they send a take-out meal to your house instead. I heard that people who attended this non-dinner were delighted to buy back an evening and take a rest. After all, our Creator made the world in seven days but only because God had evenings free.

We don’t sanctify time when our nonprofits spend a great deal of professional and lay leadership time entertaining us. I love great hor d’oeuvres but am willing to sacrifice them for the sake of our people. To quote another Jackson Browne, H. Jackson Brown, the author of “Life’s Little Instruction Book”: “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”

Let’s spend less time entertaining our community and more time strategizing, facilitating important communal conversations and making time for creativity and innovation. Let’s make time to rest. It’s hard to think if you don’t stop. As Jackson Browne sang, “I’d love to stick around, but I’m running behind.”

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).