Saturday, 11 July 2015

Uncomfortably Unproductive

Normally I'm productive. By which I mean, normally I have lots to do, and I rather like it that way. I'm not particularly proud of it, but I'm a list person, even if the list is only mental. I go down my list and tick things off when they're done. Actually, if I'm really honest, I am quite proud of being a list person and I pity those who have no lists, whose lives meander by in a directionless stream of unplanned experiences. Or maybe I envy them...

Because the feeling of being productive is one fraught with temptation, for anyone who values spiritual life, and especially for a 'professional' Christian. I know this because I just had a week with not much on, and it felt unpleasantly unproductive. I ought to know by now that when you have a quiet week, just be grateful, because soon it'll be back to normal, and normal equals busy, and busy equals feeling important. But what do you do when you had planned for being busy and then everything goes quiet (the admin is up to date, the thing that was going to take all day is cancelled, it's humid and half the family are already on holiday...)? That's where I'm hopeless. I want to be doing. I am not good at being. I get bored.

The internet doesn't help. There's something about having endless means to stimulate you that is highly distracting, as well as highly enervating. It's tempting to use it to fill the void. As you can use anything. In the wisdom of the Desert Fathers it was said simply, 'go, sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.' By that was meant, if you cannot be alone in a small place with nothing to stimulate you, you cannot learn anything about yourself. Being content. Being. It's the ultimate challenge to productivity. The usual notion of productivity is that on a good day, in a good week, one produces a collection of things (meals, invoices, spreadsheets, articles) which give a sense of achievement, and there's nothing wrong with that. But if you cannot be productive, for whatever reason (illness, tiredness, unemployment, train strikes) how do you handle it? And what effect on your spiritual life do you notice? And if you're endlessly productive outwardly, is that any guarantee of inner riches?

Work is the main area of productivity for most people, with moments of rest if your'e lucky. Busyness, verging on exhaustion is so completely normal now, that 'having nothing on' might be thought of as rather suspect, a waste of time, an indication that you're lazy. When you have, literally, nothing to do, it makes you feel un-useful, un-noticed and unpleasantly unproductive. But it's also a good spiritual barometer. What does our reaction to having nothing to do, reveal about us? Are we just a constant set of reactions to things that originate somewhere else, or is there anything real and stable inside?

Rowan Williams' Silence and Honey Cakes (2003) has some useful advice for those feeling uncomfortable in their un-productivity. The Desert Fathers knew about the temptations of the need to feel useful and productive and the effects of realising the limits of our productiveness. They had a word for the spiritual boredom and lassitude that can creep in when you feel unmotivated and inert towards others and God: 'akedia', 'one of the eight great pressures of the soul identified by the expert diagnosticians of the fifth century and later. It has to do with frustration, helplessness, lack of motivation, the displacement of stresses and difficulties from the inner to the outer world, and so on' (p. 83). 

So the unpleasant feelings associated with not being (or feeling) productive can point to an emptiness within, a sense that actually I was doing quite well making my own action without the express help of the Holy Spirit, thank you, and now that I cannot exert myself anymore, I might suddenly remember that Jesus said 'without me you can do nothing'. A need to be needed might also lurk there, which Williams writes about: 'we are even warned (...) to beware of looking eagerly for someone to love - that is, using someone else to solve the problem of your boredom and your fear of yourself' (p. 87).

The solution, he writes, is just to focus on the small things, the unimportant things - the dishes, the bins, the letter that needs writing. Here is where holiness grows, what he calls: 'the almost painfully undramatic account of what you have to do to be holy' (p. 87). For a minister, being available when needed, and utterly content when not, also calls to mind St Paul's 'I am content in all things, in famine and in plenty' (Philippians 4:12). Of course it's nice to be needed, to be important, to be asked to do things, to have a full diary of exciting things happening, to be productive. But spiritually, the time of un-productivity might just be the most important time of all. 


  1. When I first retired in 2009, I thought what now? Well after a month of blitzing the house and garden (there is only so much housework you can do) I found that I needed a routine. It didn't need to be a 'doing anything' routine, but one that I could establish to help me work through the discernment process that I entered about that time.

    I got it, with spades on. Parish work went from first a couple of hours a week - too three days a week. Ministry Team stuff, Treasurer of the Benefice - and of course, discernment.. which occupied me for the next 3 years. I was being formed, prepared, interviewed, placed, given things, which eventually led, via a Diocesan Panel (good outcome) to BAP and the wrong outcome.. (Not). My whole world, which turned on being in training for three years was closed down.

    I continued being me, but with a huge gap left by the process now ended, but with little or nothing on offer to replace it. Or so I thought.

    Eventually, another 12 months down the line, I moved completely away from what I had been doing to a new start in a local church - and low and behold, God filled that discernment shaped hole with a LLM shaped filling, which has engaged me thoroughly for the past 12 months - doing many things I have never done before,

    Preaching for one. Just God doing his bit to remind me that being busy and productive with an end goal might have been my plan, but wasn't his.

    It's wrong for me to think that it was all wasted, off course not. It was formative, it was spiritual growth in depth and breadth that I couldn't have imagined when I entered the process and to be frank, ideal preparation for engaging in the training for LLM, which has gripped me thoroughly in heart and mind now to the extent, that I don''t want it to end - but I have two years in the bank for that and in the meantime fully engaging in my parish and community is taking a great deal of my time as well. One of the roles I have taken on is Verger for Church Funerals.

    OK I thought, about an average of one a month - easily fitted in. (I have one tomorrow and another the following day).

    Someone had a bright idea for a Lunch Club!! And, I'm thoroughly engaged there as well.

    Oh, PCC, Standing Committee, Sidesperson, Intercessions, Lay Eucharistic Assistant, occasional taxi driver to hospital etc, etc.

    The wife says, she is seeing less of me than when I worked in Canterbury (112 miles away) for the final 7 years of my Army service.

    I've been really blessed with the busyness, which doesn't involve a lot of paperwork (if you don't count assignments) and is wonderfully productive, while sitting and sipping coffee with people at a coffee morning (who I didn't know from Adam a year or so ago) but are now fast friends.

    More to come, because this ministry thing seems to be heading in the direction of people stuff, rather than a great deal of public ministry (although there will be some). I'm loving being engaged in this way.

    Sharing the lives of others, supporting and the privilege of helping them, do things that without the Church and our volunteers, might confine them to their homes. I don't worry about not doing anything - I don't have time for that stuff. I get a few quiet hours in each day for prayer, reflection, writing journals or pondering on last weeks training or next weeks. Planning assignments, writing sermons or monthly reflections of Ministry in our Own Context and so on.

    So, enjoy the quiet times - because God definitely will have enough up his sleeve to keep you busy for a lifetime :)

  2. Would do me good to read and reread, and inwardly digest this written word that sounded like it had been written by myself. I felt good- sad- reflective, and possibly pleased and relieved that I am not the only God loving person who has these feelings.