Like most people I know, I have a very long to-do list. It seems that I add things faster than I cross them off. I use the list for my much-needed sense of accomplishment. I exact this need in all types of ways. For example, I refuse to let the servers in restaurants refill my water glass until I’ve nearly finished it. That constant re-filling makes me feel like I’ve never finished drinking my water – takes my sense of accomplishment away. When it comes to my to-do list, I’ll often add basic things to it just so I can cross them off. Things like: wake-up, get dressed, eat breakfast, wash dishes, drive to work. On most days, that means five things have been crossed off my list before I get to the real work.
Of course there are days when I hate the to-do list. It seems to go on forever and have a personal spiteful disposition that says: “You will never get it all done.” The to-do list is not evil. It’s there to help jog my memory, organize my activities and establish priorities.
Truth be told, the to-do list gets long and weighty when I make decisions in my I-can-conquer-the-world-in-one-day mindset. I don’t feel superhuman, but I do feel smart and very capable. Yes, I can write that article, review that essay, speak at that conference, sit on those committees, host those functions, start a study group, read four new books, finish writing my own books, fly cross-country three weekends a month . . . you get the idea.
When I feel well, I really can do all this. And I can do it fairly at a pretty high quality.
When I don’t feel well, I use up all my energy on those first five items:
- Get dressed
- Eat breakfast
- Wash dishes
- Drive to work
In fact, this is how I measure my depressive condition:
How hard or easy is it to do the basic things?
This has been the best gauge of my depressions. Depression doesn’t hit me like the drop from walking off of a cliff. It’s slow, subtle and downright sneaky. The things on the list that once seemed doable become monkeys on my back. I want to shake them off so I can focus on the top five.
I organize my life into lists. Sometimes this is very helpful. Like the time a certain airline lost my luggage. At home, I had a list of every item that was in the suitcase because I made the list when I packed. I also had a corresponding receipt. I was fully reimbursed. (Of course, I really wanted the clothes and shoes.)
I’ve also made lists in my faith life. In the season when I focused intensely on my spiritual growth, I made a list of the things I should be doing every day:
- Pray for friends
- Pray for family members
- Pray for people I don’t like
- Pray for myself
- Pray for the world
- Read and reflect on biblical passage
- Prepare for teaching weekly Bible study
- Talk with at least one of my Bible study students
- Communicate with my spiritual leader
- Make arrangements for getting to church
- Brainstorm ideas for young adult group activities at church
The list continued. I scheduled the list’s activities in a chart with appropriate time allotments so that I could fit them in with my other commitments. While these are all good things, I continually set myself up for failure. It’s a fairly unsustainable list for someone who isn’t a nun, monk or full-time minister – and then it’s still asking a lot.
While I can acknowledge that this was my over-achiever type A personality dipped in religion, it was also a product of my faith life. I loved God, and wanted to develop a relationship with God. I believed that all these things would facilitate intimacy with God. I was taught that intimacy with God was similar to intimacy with people: it required time and investment. I wanted God to be happy with me. I believed that doing certain things would please God, just as doing certain things would displease God. I didn’t want to displease God. I didn’t want to commit the sins against which I heard preachers and Sunday school teachers and Christian leaders admonish. I wanted to do God’s will. I wanted to be blessed and favored. The list helped me get there.
It would take years for me to realize that God does not want me to have a legalistic faith. God will not disown me, walk out on me or lose my number if I don’t pray everyday. God is not waiting to shake a finger of shame at me if I do something that indicates I am human. God just wants me. That’s enough.
Jesus kept trying to tell his disciples the same thing. He used a metaphor that his agrarian audience would understand: it’s like a mustard seed.
- “The kin-dom of God is like a mustard seed. . .” it’s small, but it will grow into a large bush. (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-20)
- “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, the mountain would move . . .” (Matthew 17:19-21)
- “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, move . . .” (Luke 17:5-7)
I’ve seen a mustard seed (I use it when I make curry spices). It’s small. This isn’t to say that we only need a little faith to perform miracles, and look – you don’t even have that much! (That’s the message I’ve heard in sermons.) Rather, I understand Jesus to be saying:
You already have enough.
I need this kind of message as I make it through my to-do lists. Whether the list is completed or not, I try to tell myself:
“You’ve already done enough.”
Most of my life is not lived on the depressed end of the top-five items or on the far end where I can actually do everything on the list in one day and exercise, get eight hours of sleep and be a good parent, lover, friend, daughter, minister and professor. I don’t bounce from one end to the other. Most of my life is spent somewhere in the middle.
Jesus is right. It doesn’t take a whole lot to be enough. Even if all I can do is the top-five, I am well enough.
My friend and composer Andre Myers wrote a song for children living with cancer. The refrain perfectly captures the attitude I try to have most days – whether I’m moving mountains or tapped out by list item number six:
Because I’m well enough to hear the goodness
in a loving song
and I am well enough to feel night’s beauty
dance into the dawn
and I am well enough to love the person
that I strive to be
and I’m just well enough to know that I am strong
just being me
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