“When productivity is our main way of overcoming self-doubt, we are extremely vulnerable to rejection and criticism and prone to inner anxiety and depression. Productivity can never give the deep sense of belonging we crave. The more we produce, the more we realize that successes and results cannot give us the experience of “at homeness.” In fact, our productivity reveals to us that we are driven by fear” (Henri Nouwen, You are the Beloved).
This quote by Henri Nouwen will probably hit home for most readers of this blog. Being productive, staying busy, making the most of our time, contributing, giving back, obeying our calling – all these concepts can motivate us, drive us, and make us feel good about ourselves until we stagger in exhaustion. And, even then, as we struggle to fall sleep or we oversleep, we feel that the more productive we have been, the more we have given the world our best.
Somehow we feel that the lifestyle of “work ’til you can’t” is what God wants from us, too. We identify with the disciples who wondered why Jesus took so much time off – from the work and from them – to sit in a boat or on a hillside.
Henri Nouwen was one of us – until he learned that all the time he had spent pushing himself and then patting himself on the back was not what God had in mind for his “beloveds.” Nouwen learned what God really wants from us during the last ten years of his life while he lived in the community of L’Arch Daybreak in Canada. He was the community’s pastor, but he learned about the mistaken value of productivity from caring for Adam Arnett, a profoundly disabled young man from the core community. For years, Nouwen was paired with Adam: feeding him, washing him, sitting with him, caring for his every need. He learned that even though Adam could do nothing for himself, let alone for anyone else, he could love, which was all that God required of him. In keeping with his words about productivity above, Nouwen said, “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.” (Read this beautiful story of friendship and love in Adam: God’s Beloved.)
Nouwen posits that the reason we are productive is that we crave approval and belonging. But these blessings are gifts of God. We can’t earn them; the harder we try the more anxious we get and the less at home we feel.
Learning to just sit and be still has been my biggest challenge as I age. I was raised to be always working and productive. That lifestyle was how I earned my own approval – and that of others. But then I learned that the only approval I need is God’s and that God doesn’t demand constant activity, let along approve of it. So now I do a reasonable amount of work in a day . . . and then just sit and enjoy the stillness. I am thankful that learned to find joy in being still before pain made it necessary to just sit. It’s a blessing to learn to feel comfortable just “being” before our physical condition forces us to live in a world of quiet and inactivity.
If you are one of those who feels driven by the false good feeling we get by being constantly productive, try this soul-training exercies:
Partner with God for a week of self-observation:
- Ask God to help you see yourself constantly doing and running faster and faster. Make notes of what you feel while you are busy. Approval? Belonging? Are you working and doing mostly to avoid the unworthy feelings you have when you are not busy?
- Then stop the frantic going and doing for a day. How do you feel? Anxious, bored, lonely, useless? Are you doubting your worth? If you have any of these feelings when you let go of productivity, what is God trying to teach you?