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Everything for nothing: the Berenstain Bears and the black hole of pressure.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Fatherhood has become my most cherished title. I love being a dad and watching my daughter grow and learn and play and become who she is. Fatherhood has also, though, baptized me in the waters of children’s television, which, if you’re unfamiliar, is a genre of entertainment rife with princesses, anthropomorphic animals, and, seemingly, no shortage of moral codas to clumsily tack on shallow plots. It is actually quite hilarious to dissect a random episode of any kids show on Netflix and see what sort of righteous lesson your offspring will be getting on any given afternoon.
Currently, my daughter’s favorite show is Sofia the First, a Disney Junior animated series that follows the prepubescent adventures of a girl who becomes a princess overnight when her mommy marries the king of an enchanted land, fondly known as Enchancia. While the show isn’t always without charm, it mostly feels like an excuse to reuse familiar Mouse House properties, as all the popular Disney princesses make recurring appearances throughout the show. (And if it sounds like I’m too much of an expert on this thing, that’s just what happens when you’ve watched all the episodes 2–3 times each.) (Also, interestingly enough, Whose Line Is It Anyway?’s Wayne Brady plays Sofia’s delightful pet bunny, Clover. I found that out during one of my many deep-dives into the show.)
Yet, for as cynical as I might sound when discussing children’s TV, there’s an entire wing of fury designated solely for children’s books. Reading some of the books my daughter gleefully picks from off the shelf boggles the mind as to how publishing companies determine which works will or won’t get mass produced. But before I dig my own curmudgeonly grave, I’d like to actually speak to a children’s book that has a surprisingly profound message — one that wasn’t only well articulated, but was resonant and authentic.
I am, of course, referring to Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Pressure. This 1992 children’s classic is accompanied by the tagline, “When cubs and their parents get a little too busy, their everyday lives get a little too dizzy.” I remember sitting down, with my daughter in my lap, reading page after page of startling sharp commentary on the nature of busyness and the importance of rest.
The book begins by establishing the Berenstains’ résumé of busyness with the assertion that it’s not the bee or the beaver who’s busiest in Bear Country, it’s the Bear family. They didn’t necessarily set out to win this title, mind you: “it sort of sneaked up on them.” Brother and Sister apparently have a seriously clinical case of FOMO and set out to involve themselves with every activity with which their peers are involved.
As soon as one of the cubs’ friends signed up for something, Brother and Sister had to sign up too. Before anyone thought to say enough is enough, they were also signed up for swimming, gymnastics, soccer, karate, art, and computer club.
With a weekly flurry of activities and deadlines and practices and competitions in the balance, Papa Bear hung a giant calendar in the Bear home for the purpose of keeping everyone on time, on schedule. One afternoon, while each of the Berenstains’ are getting ready for their respective activity, the phone rings. After the fourth ring, Mama Bear sends her appeal to the rest of the household to answer the phone because she’s busy at the moment, only to be returned with equally high levels of busyness by Brother and Sister that also prevent them from answering the phone. Papa Bear doesn’t answer at all, though, because he’s in the garage playing mechanic. Thus, Mama Bear is forced to halt her task and play household secretary.
Breathless, she answers the phone and on the other end is Gran. But as Mama Bear attempts to explain why she doesn’t have time to chat with Gran, the phone cord and her purse become a tangled mess which causes the phone to tumble to the floor. As Mama reaches down to unravel the twisted cords, she loses her balance and likewise finds herself “sitting in a tangled heap on the floor.” Mama cuts the conversation with Gran short, leaving a dinner invitation in the balance. “Let me check our schedule and get back to you,” she says as she hangs up the phone.
That same night, the Bear family’s nightmarish schedule becomes an even more pressing existential reality by plaguing each family member with literal nightmares. Sister Bear is haunted by a “merry-go-round of activities, which went round and round and round.” And despite all her efforts, she couldn’t withstand the centrifugal force of the competing calendars. She was trapped in an inertial state of constant activity. Brother Bear is tormented by an “enormous whirlwind of baseballs, soccer balls, and computers.” Papa Bear is plagued by a “deep black hole,” into which the family calendar wildly propels him. Mama Bear, however, stays awake all night, “staring into the darkness, wondering how she was going to get through the next day.”
After a watershed night of sleep (or lack thereof), the Berenstains’ continue on with their hectic lives. They get out of bed in a flurry, each preparing for another full day of practices and errands and assignments and agendas. This morning, though, it seems life finally catches up with them. As Mama, Sister, and Brother Bear get in the car, the engine doesn’t crank. Notwithstanding all of Mama’s efforts to get the motor running, the Berenstains’ are stuck with a motionless vehicle. And, according to their calendar, this day is already a failure.
Mama Bear breaks down in uncontrollable sobbing. She heads for her room and cries herself to sleep, a sight never before seen by Brother and Sister Bear. Brother rushes to find Papa Bear. Once back at the house, Mama has somewhat recovered, but what has transpired is serious enough for the Berenstains’ to call a family meeting and recover “a little common sense about too much pressure.” They needed a change. They needed to slow down. “There was too much going on — too much coming and going, too much rushing about, too much pressure.” And, thankfully, they did change. They lightened their loads and reduced their coming and going.
True — they lost their title The Busiest Family in Bear Country. But they went back to having a very good time doing the everyday things that most families do. They worked and played, went to school, visited friends, enjoyed nature — and once in a while, they sat around doing absolutely nothing.
The practicality of this little book knows no bounds. I am struck by its message — one that preaches to both the functional and the theological self. Our busyness tells us that we can win. It whispers in our ear and coaxes us to perform. It convinces us that there’s still some bookkeeping to be done. There’s still some spiritual ledgers to balance. And the busier you are the quicker you can account for the remainder, the quicker you can get ahead. We hope to validate and justify ourselves through our calendars. We operate as spiritual accountants, crunching all the religious numbers to make sure we’ve done enough. If we come up lacking, well, better add something else to the calendar to make up for it. But such line of thinking runs directly opposed to the logic of grace. For, as Father Capon says in his Parables of Judgment:
Bookkeeping is the only punishable offense in the kingdom of heaven. For in that happy state, the books are ignored forever, and there is only the Book of life. And in that book, nothing stands against you. There are no debit entries that can keep you out of the clutches of the Love that will not let you go. There is no minimum balance below which the grace that finagles all accounts will cancel your credit.
Indeed, nothing could ever deaden the love God has for you. No, not even unchecked task lists or under-performing schedules. Christ’s blood is sufficient still — good enough to cover your calendars, full or empty.
The freedom to do nothing comes from the grand news that Jesus has already done everything on our behalf. We are unburdened and unencumbered by the pressure to perform precisely because Christ has performed for us already, gifting his perfection to us in grace. A perfection which, by the way, is sufficient enough to account for all our ebbs and flows between the poles of performing and trusting.
All the accolades that might accompany our busy schedules and the opportunities afforded thereby are nothing compared to the accolades given to us in the gospel. There, we are furnished, for free, with nothing less than the righteousness of God himself. (2 Cor 5:21) There, in the grisly business of Calvary’s mount, we’re invited to share in continual repose on Christ’s achievements, which, though never truly stamped out in this life, quiet the tide of life’s pressures. In that respite, we’re freed from the compulsive bent to perform and establish our worth. There’s no activity left unaccomplished by which to secure acceptance and relevance. In Jesus’s passion and resurrection, we’re gifted all the value, worth, acceptance, and relevance we could ever hope for — precisely by doing nothing. “On the cross, with nails through his hands and feet,” writes the beloved Capon, “Jesus does all that he judges needs doing; and he does it all by doing precisely nothing. He just dies.”
We are particularly unsettled by the fact of nothingness accomplishing something, which, to me, is why we’re perpetually nervous by grace’s message of everything for nothing. Our logic insists on some accomplishment being proffered before an equal measure of reward is returned. And yet, grace runs contrary to this line of thinking, upsetting all our preconceived notions of reciprocity and fairness by giving eager beavers and eleventh-hour workers the same wage. (Mt 20:1–16) As my good friend Charlotte Getz has said, “Sometimes nothing is more something than we like to think.” Sometimes the resting has more substance and reward than the toiling.
Jesus’s invitation resonates loud and true. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt 11:28) “Come to me with your pressures and performances and merit motors and you will find the transcendent peace and rest of my grace.” Jesus’s invitation is a restful one because it’s one of death. Death to your agendas. Death to your daytimers. Death to your programs of productivity. And rest in the One who’s performed all and performed perfectly for you.
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 55.