Our washing machine died and thus I find myself on this fine Tuesday morning at the laundromat with five overflowing baskets of dirty clothes and twenty dollars worth of quarters. I’ve been putting this huge chore off, of course, there being at least forty other ways I’d rather be spending my time, but now things have gotten desperate in the undergarment department and I’m having to bite the bullet and take care of what needs to get done.
Avoidance, of that which is difficult, demanding, tedious, awkward, etc., is a vice I’ve struggled with for decades, beginning in high school and college with assignments too large to complete in one sitting. I was pretty awful at disciplining myself to work steadily on a project, breaking it down into manageable sections, days or weeks in advance of its due date. Invite me to dinner or a movie and I’d most likely say yes in a heartbeat, justifying my spontaneous outing with a, “Later! I can get it done later.” I pulled many an unnecessary all-nighter back in the day.
More recently, this habitual avoidance has manifested itself by way of me finding any and everything to look up on-line in lieu of facing a messy house, or any overwhelming undertaking, head on. I’m also good at finding errands to run as a means of procrastination.
I certainly never felt great about this side of myself, but lacked the wherewithal to wage an assault on my addictions to all things easy-squeezy. It’s that small rush, you know, of escaping labor momentarily that’s kept me coming back for more – that rush that fades all too quickly into frustration when that job is still waiting for me when I return, only now bigger and more oppressive than before.
My own kids are reaching that stage where their school responsibilities are starting to increase quite a bit. Just last week, my oldest daughter had a research paper she’d not at all been looking forward to writing; I could see her squirming under the weight of it. Finally, after a fair amount of putzing around, she sat down at the desk in our family room and started typing. Troy and I helped her out here and there with organizing content, and with grammar, but the vast majority of that paper was on her 11-year-old shoulders.
Bless her heart, she stuck with it (better than I would have at her age), declaring upon completing her assignment that the thought, the dread, of writing of it had been way worse than actually doing it. Isn’t that the truth! I agreed with her, smiling at her obvious thrill at having discovered that truth on her own. I want to be for her, for all my children, a living verification of that truth – an example of industriousness and perseverance.
Do the most difficult and painful thing first, is #27 of Father Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living. On a practical and emotional level, this makes sense in that getting straight to tackling the hardest parts of our daily agendas not only results in increased productivity but also frees us from the guilt and yuck of having those most arduous tasks hanging menacingly over our heads. But how is procrastination also a spiritual issue? I’ve been chewing on this the last few days, thinking about how having a strong work ethic, unaffected by my whims and impulses, might benefit my soul. Here are a few of the conclusions I’ve arrived at thus far:
1. Often times, that “most difficult and painful thing” is prayer.
If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself, wrote Ambros of Optina. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matt. 11:12). Now I will be the first one to vouch for the fact that prayer is not easy. I will also confirm, however, that it is absolutely essential for any kind of sustained peace or wisdom. As Christians we are to deny ourselves and carry our crosses, which requires obedience, endurance, and sticktoitiveness. Developing a stamina that overpowers fickleness and caprice would only strengthen my resolve to quiet my vain preoccupations and seek first the Kingdom of God.
2. Doing the most difficult and painful thing first requires Christ’s intervention.
Nine times out of ten, I fear and delay the difficult things because they’re more than I, alone, can bear. The difficult and painful things make most obvious my need for mercy and HELP! Free-falling submissively in faith into a challenge wider, deeper, higher than I think I can handle is, yes, terrifying, but also stimulates all kinds of salvific growth. Acknowledging our weaknesses and proceeding despite them, with our eyes all glued on Christ, allows for miracles to take place – for God to be given the glory via our witness of His faithfulness. Cast yourselves in the arms of God, wrote Philip Neri, and be sure that if he wants anything of you, He will fit you for the work and give you strength.”
3. Selfless Love is most difficult and painful.
The parable of the Good Samaritan really hammers this point home. If he is the model Jesus set before us of how to love and serve our neighbor, than we better darn well expect our schedules to be interrupted, our patience to be tested, our lust for money and material possessions challenged. The muscle of selflessness must be exercised everyday, by my choosing to give my all to pesky mundane chores until their completion, if I ever hope to respond reflexively with selfless love when confronted by a neighbor in need. I must work and work and ever work at dying to my distain for being uncomfortable and inconvenienced.
Now what I’m usually wont to do when all fired up about a new conviction, is try and bulldoze my way through reality by making ridiculous and sweeping “I’m turning over a new leaf once and for all!” declarations. This totally misses the point, of course, by having me trust in my own quite limited capabilities rather than ceaselessly imploring Christ for assistance. I’m not overzealously leaping ahead here, just humbly inching forward, trying to be consistent with tiny changes that they might add to up to bigger changes that will bless me, my family and my community over time.
And what’s my first plan of action? To pray for the self-control to put my piles of now clean and folded laundry away without pausing every five minutes to check my e-mail. From there, who knows? I will prayerfully cross each bridge when I come to it.
Into your hands, O Lord Jesus Christ, I commend my spirit, my body, my noisy urges and idleness, bless me, save me and grant me eternal life. Amen