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“Ten pounds of manure in a five pound can” – The essential art of saying “No”


“You can’t put ten pounds of manure in a five pound can.’

What does that mean?

Let me explain.

Over the course of my life, my dad has offered me a treasure trove of indispensable advice…

“Watch the ball.”
“Put some elbow grease into it.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

And quoted the great masters…

“Small strokes fell great oaks.”
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
“Nothing ventured; nothing gained.”

Ah, yes. But, nowadays, the words that especially ring true when I examine my overcommitted life are,

“You can’t put ten pounds of manure in a five pound can.”

Nope. You can’t.

Now, contrary to the assumption that this is just hayseed wisdom, consider its deeper meaning.

In the midst of ever-growing responsibilities and opportunities, there is only so much time. We forget that. But we try to convince ourselves otherwise. If only we manage our time more efficiently (we tell ourselves), we will achieve our goals, be happier and find greater fulfillment. We just need to work harder. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Work through lunch. Shortcut this. Skip that. Multitask. Cram it in. Cram it in. Cram it in. Don’t you feel the improvement? Aren’t you becoming enlightened?


This is the classic Mary and Martha situation. Mary and Martha know how busy life is and are aware of all the demands made upon them as homemakers and hostesses. And when Christ comes for a visit, their eyes open to what needs to be done. Martha, dutifully, gets on with the tasks of cleaning and food preparation. But Mary discerns something deeper. Somehow, the presence of Christ has concentrated her mind. The “to-do” list falls away. And she sits and listens. Unlike Martha, Mary finds her priorities transformed from what needs to be done to what ought to be done. The difference? One is that nagging sense of tasky (albeit earnest) human priorities. The other is the transcendent and enlivening priority of God. One tends to tax and distract; the other seems to invigorate and center. To be sure, this is not a call to jettison all workaday responsibilities, but rather to triage them in favor of God.

Recently, I came across an insightful excerpt written by a priest that got me thinking. He described the spiritual life of someone torn by all of their appetites and commitments as dis-integrated (literally having lost the unified, wholeness that our soul craves in its communion with God). And the person who can say “no” to that which distracts or overwhelms and “yes” to the call of God as integrated. Effectively, it is about moving toward or away from that unum necessarium, or One Necessary Thing. When we are breathlessly overcommitting and zealously multitasking, our tendency is to call ourselves stressed. But it may be more. We may be spiritually fractured and dis-integrated. As we flop in the chair exhausted at day’s end, we may try to convince ourselves that we are fulfilled. But are we? Our list may be done, but our soul may be empty.

By periodically saying no to the incessant demands of life, we may feel we are shutting the door on opportunity or even shirking ever-growing responsibilities. We have a deeply ingrained habit to follow the dictum, “Don’t just sit there, do something!”. This frenetic pace can be damaging and unsustainable. By saying no, we are not limiting ourselves. Instead, we are opening ourselves to a sliver of peace, a moment to breathe, a crack in the door through which God can fit. Or as Flannery O’Connor privately prayed

“I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

Perhaps it is time to push ourselves and our tasks aside. And perhaps it is time to say yes to God.

Are we ready?

Photo credit: Pixabay

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