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Activism, Music, and the Conundrum of Productivity

Source: Pixabay

Most of us, I think, want to feel productive, to believe that we are making a contribution to the world we live in. We want to feel that we matter, that we are making a difference. The question is…how do we know if this is true or not? Our society tends to answer this fundamental question by devising ways to measure our impact, our productivity. However, could it be that in our desire to be sure that we are making a difference we actually are making our world worse off? I suspect that this may be true.

As an economist, far be it from me to say that we should not be productive. Promoting productivity, and its first cousin efficiency, constitutes my profession’s bread and butter. Yet for many years I have believed that we have misconstrued this concept.

Measuring Productivity

In our desire to know that we are being productive we have focused on devising methods for measuring something’s output. Typically we determine the productivity of a resource by how many units of output it produces in a given period of time. For instance, an acre of land that produces 100 bushels of corn per acre per year we say is more productive than one producing 50. Or, a salesperson who closes 50 sales in a month we say is more productive than one who closes only 30.

Within certain contexts this provides us a clear picture of something’s (or someone’s) contribution. But how do we measure the contribution of the individual on a sales or production team who doesn’t sell a lot or produce many widgets, but who somehow motivates everyone else to work together harmoniously (and “productively”)? How do we value a piece of land that produces little corn but, because of its history, provides a community with a sense of who they are and where they fit into the world? What about those “unproductive” sacred places that are “just sitting idle” or the peacemakers and artists in our midst? How do we measure their output?

Attempts to measure productivity can lead us to confuse output with contribution. Sometimes the largest contributions to the well being of the world consist of precisely those things we can’t measure. A mother’s love cannot be quantified, yet her contribution is enormous. However, our quest for certitude and efficiency lead us to stress those things we can quantify and undervalue those things we cannot.

The Productivity of Standing Still

Orthodox Christians say that the most important thing we can do is to stand still. How can “doing nothing” contribute the most to the world? Perhaps we may understand what they are trying to tell us by examining at a group of musicians that believes the world desperately needs to hear their music. So, they all get together one evening and start playing, each one zealously playing in whatever key he thinks is important, performing whatever song she thinks needs to be sung in whatever genre she wants to share. It takes very little for us to imagine the chaos that results. Due to their zeal and certitude as to what needs to be done the musicians don’t listen to one another and resist cooperating. They confuse action with results. After all, they’re playing music, aren’t they? For this reason large ensembles usually have a conductor or bandleader who determines the pieces to be played and literally gets everyone on the same page. A good leader brings harmony and meaningful results.

When we “stand still,” we aren’t inactive. We instead take time to listen to the still, small voice of the Conductor and to get direction as to what the Conductor wants us to play. The Spirit cares more about the world and its Music than we do. If we truly want to contribute, we all need to stop frantically running around doing things and to start listening to the One trying to get us all on the same page. Once we start responding to what we hear in the open silence of our hearts, we can have confidence that we will be contributing profoundly to our world. We may not be able to measure our contribution or even know exactly what it is. This requires humility. We can know, however, that we are helping to produce something profoundly meaningful. So, let’s all go out and stand still. Let’s develop “ears that hear and eyes that see” and learn to relish the quiet, allowing it to change us…and our world.

Center for Religion and Environment

Contemplation and Care for Creation

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Searching for True Happiness

You never know when God might tell you that you’re on the right track. The other day my wife and I had the intriguing experience of watching a movie we knew nothing about and, of all things, discovering that it reinforced spiritual lessons we have learned over time.

Based on Francois Lelord’s 2002 popular novel by the same name, “Hector and the Search for Happiness” chronicles the adventures of a British psychiatrist who leads a very tidy, neat and predictable daily routine, Continue reading “Searching for True Happiness”

Fireflies, Easter and the Computer’s Siren Call

We were walking to the end of the hollow from an old farmhouse in the mountains of North Carolina to watch the evening’s display of firefly fireworks. Talking quietly, when we arrived at the bowl of a pasture at the road’s end we fell silent as the life around us seeped deeply within. Over the course of a couple week’s evening trips to this spot my buddy, a loud outgoing Polish American who loved his beer, turned into a quiet, thoughtful mystic. He changed, we changed, and so did our relationship. Everything grew richer and more profound.

Plenty of Time, Plenty of Time

On Good Friday when many Christians fast and pray in preparation for the feast of Easter, I decided to fast from the computer. Continue reading “Fireflies, Easter and the Computer’s Siren Call”

Spring, the Restart Button, and Lent

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I think all too often Lent gets a bad rap. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a time when many Christians examine their lives, acknowledge where they have fallen short, and take steps to grow spiritually. Unfortunately we often associate it with the need to feel guilty and sad about our shortcomings. Yet, the repentance to which Lent calls us needn’t involve sackcloth and ashes. The rest of creation gives us, I think, direction on how to have a truly fruitful Lent. Continue reading “Spring, the Restart Button, and Lent”

Nature, Creatureliness, and the Spiritual Significance of Seasons

Photo credit: Pixabay

We sometimes forget that we are creatures that live in the midst of seasons. Many insects, for instance, pass through various stages of life during which they may experience changes from winter to spring, summer to fall. We, too, transition from infancy to adulthood to elder maturity. However, as self-reflective creatures we depend greatly on seasons not only to mark time but also to derive meaning, an enterprise perhaps fairly distinctive of our species.

Why Seasons Matter

Seasons provide a rhythm to life. Continue reading “Nature, Creatureliness, and the Spiritual Significance of Seasons”

What our National Monuments Policy May Say about Us

Under President Trump our country has changed its public lands policy dramatically, particularly as seen in its decisions on the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In all these cases the federal government is rolling back protections in order to open these areas to oil and gas exploitation. Other national monuments are being opened to other forms of resource exploitation. What does this say about who we are as a people, particularly when this is happening at this time of year?

Guiding the Market

Much of the controversy revolves around the proper role of markets and government. Continue reading “What our National Monuments Policy May Say about Us”

Pros and Cons of Fear: Thoughts on Hospitality, Grizzlies, and the Politics of Them

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I had volunteered to take a University Outreach trip to the Costa Rican rainforest, one that emphasized the spiritual dimension of service. In preparation I brought the group out to our land for a simple introduction to the contemplation of nature. We had one slight problem – four students from Yonkers were scared stiff in the woods. When I sent them out to contemplate, nervously giggling and holding hands, the best they could do for the hour was to talk with our neighbors’ cows. They were so afraid of the strangeness of the woods (from which you could see our house and the neighbors’ pasture) that they could not experience the riches nature was offering them.

Fear and Survival

Fear, of course, helps us survive by motivating us to avoid danger. Scientists believe that our ancestors, Continue reading “Pros and Cons of Fear: Thoughts on Hospitality, Grizzlies, and the Politics of Them”