My false god

Chaplin_-_Modern_TimesI was on the phone with an old friend, catching up. He had read some of my blog posts and wanted to hear more about what’s happening in my life. And he asked some perceptive questions. Like this one:

“You’ve use the word ‘productivity’ a few times. Tell more about what you mean by that.”

Without stopping to think, I blurted out: “It’s my false god.”

I had never quite thought of it that way before. It’s not literally true, of course. But as the words came out of my mouth, they rang true—not just as a glib metaphor, but in some deep emotional sense. I put my faith in productivity as if it can save me from my perceived sins of laziness, complacency, not-good-enoughness.

“Let me suggest a different word,” my friend said: “usefulness.”

For sure, it’s quite possible to be useful without being productive. And certainly there are plenty of people who are productive but not useful: cigarette manufacturers, for instance, and writers of click-bait headlines.

My fixation is on useful productivity. It’s not enough to get things done just for the sake of getting things done. They need to be useful.

So what’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing. The problem lies in what I discovered while talking to my friend: the demand for productivity is like a god to me—and a jealous god at that. It’s not a god that loves me and wants to take care of me. I spend a great deal of energy trying to please it.

Actually, upon examining the metaphor more closely, I realize that productivity is not the god. The god is perfectionism. (Surprise!) Productivity is the religion: the method of worship, the means of appeasing this wrathful deity.

The rules are intricate, specifying what kinds of activities count as productive, how much of them I have to do, how well I have to do it. If I was super-productive yesterday, does any of the credit carry over to today? If I procrastinated on my top priority but completed three tasks that were lower on the list, is that partial success or total failure? There’s a whole Talmud governing the Laws of Productivity.

The seeds of this Mary Oliver Challenge were planted last Passover, when the poem “Wild Geese” captured my imagination as a vision of liberation from self-imposed expectations of perfection. It’s a long journey, one I had already begun, but one that stretches far ahead of me.

This Passover, in the spirit of freedom, maybe I’ll smash some idols. And I’ll try not to keep a tally of how many I smash or how well I do it.

What is the Mary Oliver Challenge? Glad you asked. You can read about it here.

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