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How to be unproductive: A lesson from St. Martha


Pxhere | CC0 Public Domain

Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 07/28/19

Is "getting a lot done" a badge of honor for you? If so, take a note from this good friend of Jesus.

Productivity is a state of being I constantly chase. If I’m not accomplishing a task or somehow actively improving myself, I almost get physically itchy. I simply must get up off the couch and exercise, or read a philosophy book I pretend to understand, or do yardwork. I’ve always had the ability to get a lot done during the course of a day, but that isn’t always a good character trait because work and productivity should not define us. So, if at the end of the day, I consider it a successful day only because I stayed busy and completed a lot of projects, that’s a problem. Why, when reviewing the success of my day, don’t I factor in whether I stopped to play with my children? If I hugged my wife? If I had a quiet cup of coffee on the porch before heading off to work? If I took a walk around the block and stopped to look at the sunset?

It seems that over-work is a defense mechanism. We bury ourselves in endless productivity because it’s an escape from the harder task of just being using our leisure time wisely. If I accomplish a long to-do list every day, not only do I not have to think about anything else, but I receive immediate validation. What’s really happening, though, is that by using up every waking hour I’m suffocating myself. I have no room to breathe and, without the leisure time to explore the beauty of the world and my place in it, I am avoiding making the true, more frightening challenge of self-reflection. My primary responsibility is not to be productive, it is to love those around me and look deeply into the heart of reality to God’s beating heart from which all life flows.

I’m learning, and now I tend to define the success of my days by whether the baby giggled when I kissed her cheek. She laughs when I put my face to hers and I know it’s a wonderful day. There is great value in these unproductive moments. In fact, they are the reason we’re alive. In particular, I’ve learned from my children the value of simply wasting time and playing. Unproductive time spent with people I love is never wasted. There’s a fine line, though, between productive leisure time and laziness. So, I’m not justifying my bad habit or spending too time in front of the television or on the internet, which is more a vice than healthy leisure. There’s a right way to do nothing.

Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Martha, a woman who could be called the patron saint of being productive. There’s the famous story of how, when she and her sister Mary hosted a large gathering for Christ and his followers, Martha spent the whole time doing dishes and fretting over the party arrangements. Meanwhile, her sister spent time with the guests listening to the teaching of Jesus.

Which one was the more productive sister? It turns out that it was Mary. I have to think that Martha, after she stopped putting coasters under everyone’s drink and fretting over whether the bowl was still filled with chips, learned a valuable lesson. In order to discover the mystery of our existence, why God made us and for what purpose, we must make time to sit quietly, to listen, to pay attention. In short, we must be outwardly unproductive.

I tend to act a lot like Martha, so I’ve thought a lot about my motivations and why I feel so anxious when I’m not hard at work. I think I have the answer: I have trouble with leisure because I’m prideful.

I distrust the value of anything that I haven’t personally labored to create. As a Catholic, I’m firmly committed to the idea that my existence is a gift. If I am alive, and if I have joy in my life, it is because God has given it to me. I did not create it myself. I haven’t earned the love of my family. I don’t do a single thing to make a sunset splash over the horizon. I’m not the engine that makes waves crash up onto the seashore. It’s all a gift. I struggle with pride, though, and I distrust free gifts because it was not my effort that brought them about. What Martha learned, and what I’m still figuring out, is that it’s okay to quiet down and accept the joy that comes my way even if it is effortless.

Take a quiet moment today to contemplate something lovely. Don’t worry about productivity — the dishes that need to be done, the to-do list, the task at work that needs to be taken care of. Like Martha, we have two choices before us — to chase endless productivity and distraction, or to choose the better way of self-reflective, spiritual contemplation, and accepting the gift of a happy life. As with Martha, it’s time to choose the better way.

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