Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Important Tasks

Yesterday I removed an old apple tree stump from the yard. We replaced the old tree several years ago with a different variety and the root ball has been sitting next to the new young tree and serving as the heart of a weed patch in the front yard.

This is not a big deal. Our yard is large, mostly in front of the house, and is surrounded by untamed woodland. There are evergreens between the weed patch and the road. My clothesline with its sagging posts is nearby. No one trims under the other fruit trees in the yard or around the clotheslines poles. Ours is a country yard, not a manicured city lot. In context, the weed patch is not nearly the eyesore one might expect.

Still, yesterday was another beautiful spring day and I was lured into tackling the weeds. One thing led to another, the wheelbarrow was called into play, and the stump will now continue its decay in the woods rather than the front yard.

Was this an important task? No. It has not once earned a place on my to-do list. Was it urgent? Not at all. In fact, it's a prime example of the benefits of procrastination -- the longer it stayed there and decayed, the easier it was to break it apart for removal. Were there more important and urgent tasks on my to-do list? Absolutely. Just the thought of those very important and uncompleted tasks with their looming deadlines starts a tempest of anxiety within my mind.

So why did I choose yesterday to move the old stump out of the front yard? Why not complete the urgent and important tasks first and then reward myself by doing something more pleasant?

Two reasons. First, did I mention it was a gorgeous spring day? And not a single important and urgent task involved outside activity. I wanted to be outside more than I wanted to clear off my to-do list. But more than that, I'm beginning to realize that I am blessed with so many opportunities in life I could fill all my days doing urgent and important things and never get around to moving the old apple tree stump out of the front yard. Or writing posts such as this. If I ever cleared out all the clamor of my current to-do list, I would discover more opportunity to do more tasks that would look just as valuable as the ones currently clamoring for my attention.

I have often started an appointment-free Saturday with the realization that I could fill it completely with unfinished job-related tasks. Or church-related tasks. Or homeowner tasks. Or I could spend the entire day building relationships. Or I could catch up on reading and writing and sewing and other pleasurable tasks for which there is never enough time. I could fill such a day five times over! And at the end of that multiplied day I would discover more job- and church-related tasks, more projects to tackle around the house, more books to read, posts to write, more relationships begging for attention. And the weeds would still be growing tall around the old apple tree stump in the front yard because, with all those urgent and important tasks demanding my attention, it's not that big a deal to have one more weed patch in the yard.

In light of all this, I could make a resolution to deliberately devote some time every day to unimportant tasks that serve to refresh my soul. Or I could simply spend less effort fighting the siren call of such satisfying but unimportant activities. Sometimes I just need to shrug off the burden of overcommitment, go out in the sunshine and move old stumps, and let the to-do list deal with the resulting loss of time resources.

Related posts:
What Is It about a Garden?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

#10 Suffering produces character.

This last entry in my expositions on Ten Things to Remember has been slow in coming. One reason for the delay is that, like the first entry, this last one, the other bookend, strikes me mostly as a platitude. Yes, I know. God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life. (Yawn.) When that wonderful life starts to fall apart, people tell me I'm unlovable, and my emotions spiral downward, it's hard to believe it. I can give mental assent when my heart cries out it isn't true, but it seems hollow.

Now here we are at the other end with another platitude: Suffering produces character. There are at least two passages from the Bible to support this thought: Romans 5:3-5 and James 1:2-4. Our parents, grandparents, and other mentors in life also sometimes like to remind us of this truth when they tire of our whining. Most of us, however, would gladly give up a little character development if we could find a way to avoid the hard times. And we all know people of weak character who readily relate all of life's difficulties that stand between them and being a better person. Sometimes, it seems, the primary product of difficult circumstances is wounded, unhappy people.

Still, it's true. When we choose to allow it, difficult times can indeed be good for us. They drive us to the God who alone can redeem them and turn what looks to be hopelessly bad into good. In the Bible, at the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph, the favored son of Jacob (aka Israel) sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, assures them that God used the terrible evil they did for good by enabling him to save the world as they knew it from starving to death during seven years of famine.

The worst evil people can do can be redeemed by the amazing life-giving power of our Creator. Hard times can work wonders within us. This I truly believe. But when trouble shows up and punches me in the gut, in those times of emotional distress, it's hard for me to see character as worth the price.

I can imagine a stand-up comedian getting some good laughs by pulling out this line, harking back to the lack of support from friends and family during the tough times. Which is maybe the greatest value it has when I'm flailing around at the bottom of an emotional pit. It can draw my attention to the world of laughter and irony and enable me to smile just a little at the drama which has so consumed my energy and skewed my perspective. I consider the measure of my suffering on a universal scale (pitifully low considering the intensity of my reaction to it) and consider how much character development I can hope to get out of it. Maybe being able to step out of myself and find even that tiny trace of humor in my heart at how serious I'm taking life's blows is a first step toward both emotional health and a stronger character.

So when I'm counting to ten in response to life's blows, if the first nine don't give me a hand up out of my slough of despair, I can at least fall back on this timeless piece of advice coming from those who aren't walking where I'm walking and think about what wonderful character development I can hope for if I manage to endure my suffering to the end.