catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 20 :: 2012.11.09 — 2012.11.22


In the balance

When my first marriage was failing, my therapist recommended that I make a to-do list, marking off each item as I accomplished it. He recognized that I was flailing, finding it difficult to get or to see momentum in building a new life for myself and my two-year-old son. Progress begets progress, he knew, and he showed me that it was true. I needed, at that point in my life, to be able to measure my self-worth with the number of checkmarks on that list.

I was not an unproductive person before that, I’m sure.  I’d graduated from college and succeeded at several jobs. But since then I’ve developed something of a reputation as an organized person, a person who gets things done. I’ve bought and read most of the books in the time management and organization sections of the self-help shelves at the bookstore. I’m a sucker for magazines with headlines like “Declutter your home” or “Organize your life in 30 minutes.” I like systems, office supplies and online applications that reschedule repeating tasks as soon as I’ve done them.

I see this as a part of stewardship. I’m not here to fill space, I’m here to play my part in caring for and working for God’s kingdom. The more efficient I am, the bigger the impact I can have. If I can do my own paying work in four hours a day, that gives me four hours a day to help that camp for disabled adults, or that neighborhood center for community development, or my church’s outreach strategy.

But it’s not always obvious just what efficiency is. My father traveled to Japan in the early 1960s. He brought back for me a silk coin purse and an educational toy, a scale that would balance if the value of the numbers you hooked on one side equaled that of the numbers you hooked on the other. He also brought back a story that may or may not have been true of the whole country of Japan at that time, but it was true where he’d been: “On the radio,” he said, “they said ‘it’s morning and it’s hot.’” They didn’t say it’s 92 degrees at 11:47 a.m.

My dad admired what he heard from that radio announcer. He liked that it was more gracious, less driven, less type-A than what he was hearing in America. If anything, it may have struck him as inefficient, but I’m not so sure that’s true. If efficiency is the lack of wasted effort, that announcer was giving enough information but not too much; he said what mattered, but not so much detail that he fed a frenzy.

We get fresh eggs from a friend, and they can be all shapes and colors and sizes. This is, for me, an invitation to pause and notice eggs that otherwise would pass quickly — and efficiently — through my hands. "Nothing is ordinary,” said Patrick Madden. “If we would just pay attention, we would see the marvelous in everything we take for granted.” Too often, we think paying attention is at odds with efficiency, when actually, we cannot have good judgment about what’s necessary or wasteful if we don’t pay attention.

That’s part of the seduction of efficiency: it can tempt us to think that every moment must be full of checking things off the list. When efficiency clouds our vision about what’s really wasteful or necessary, it makes us sacrifice the long-term for something that may seem more expedient right now.

And in the long term, we have to keep in view that the most important Gospel lesson about efficiency is that love trumps it. Being able to be efficient in the service of others is a gift; efficiency does not have intrinsic value. I could efficiently falsify financial statements; I could efficiently clear-cut a rainforest. Efficiency in the service of evil is easy to condemn. What’s more difficult is remaining conscious of how it can subtly, over time, without our intention, distort our vision, limit our perceptiveness, or oppress ourselves and others.

It’s a seductive path, this focus on getting things done. I can start out with gratitude that I’m able to finish a blog post inviting people to volunteer for a Habitat house, but before I know it, I’m proud of myself. And when my own accomplishments encourage me to think of myself and not God’s purpose, I’m less able to listen to learn more about what God sees next on my priority list. When I’m feeling smug and self-sufficient, I’m less able to imagine that I might not “worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” I’m more likely to be thinking about my own troubles right now.

When my desire for efficiency makes me impatient with other people, when it makes me judge others harshly, when it limits who I’m willing to involve in the next project, I know I’ve let getting things done too close to command central. When I forget to look a person in the eye for gladness or hurt before I ask about the next task, I may be efficient. But I’ve let efficiency supplant humanity. If I wake up thinking it’s more important to clean the house on schedule than to take advantage of a sunny winter day, I’m putting efficiency ahead of the life of abundance God has offered us.

That life of abundance includes loving ourselves, too, which is sometimes difficult when we’re conditioned for efficiency — and for a vision of efficiency that equates it only with getting things done. My inability to be realistic about how much I can do in a day often makes it difficult to reach the evening and declare, “It was very good.”

And, although I know God can speak through the tumult of a storm or the static of my to-do list, I also suspect that more time for “emptiness” would make it easier to listen.

I’ll work on that. You know, I’ll put it on my to-do list. And I pray that when I hang stewardship of my time and expression of God’s love on the two sides of the scale, it will balance more often than not.

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