"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Theodore Roosevelt
Yesterday I spent some time out at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with a friend. We walked through some of the gardens - no, they are no longer blooming and yes, it was
darn cold. But we talked as we walked and then went inside to warm up over a cup of hot chocolate infused coffee. Our talking and walking has given me much to think about.
Our discussion was wide ranging - families, travel, God, and politics (tough to avoid these days). Suffusing this conversation was the concept of productivity - its value and, more important, its definition.
The US culture is a "doing" culture. While other cultures around the world (many African cultures, for example) emphasize 'being' the US culture values 'doing' much more highly. It permeates our thinking and our language. The Roosevelt quote above reflects what most of use have been taught. When we are asked to describe ourselves we often start with a statement of what we do - I'm a teacher, I'm a doctor, I'm a writer. We think of ourselves in terms of what we do representing who we are. When we meet someone new we ask "So, what do you do?" On Monday at work our conversations often start with asking "What did you do this past weekend?" and our end of the week conversations switch to "What are you going to do this coming weekend?" We have our calendars full of appointments and obligations and we schedule those things far in advance. (Several years ago I received a "save the date" card for a wedding over a year before the actual wedding was to take place.) We schedule virtually everything in our lives and we have extended that to scheduling our childrens' lives as well.
I got my first job when I was 12 years old. After that, I was never without a job. During college I always worked in addition to taking classes and during a few of those years I worked 3 jobs at a time. Hard work was something I learned at home from both of my parents. The message of productivity was clear - you didn't expect someone else to support you (parent or spouse) - you worked to support yourself. And, whatever work you did, you worked hard and did the best job you possibly could. And, as my fellow teachers can attest to, work and productivity weren't limited to an 8 hour day. Evenings and weekends grading papers and preparing for classes is simply an understood part of the job. And in our current age of email and constant contact many people find it difficult to turn off work at all - working on projects and answering emails far beyond regular working hours.
Since retiring I have run up against this cultural expectation in some interesting ways. I've been told by some "I'm never going to retire - I'd be so bored" and have been asked by others if I am bored. I've also received the question "So, what do you DO all day?" asked in a tone of complete bewilderment. Those questions are absolutely connected to our cultural definition of 'productivity'.
So I am doing some things that fit into that definition of productivity. I'm doing some editing work, I'm doing some volunteer work. But I'm doing other things that I'm sure wouldn't fall into that definition. I'm taking piano lessons again, I'm writing, I'm going to the gym, I'm studying French, I'm crocheting scarves for a domestic violence shelter, I'm walking my dog. While I'm doing all of those things, I'm thinking. I'm thinking a lot.
Much of that thinking does not result in a tangible 'product' - something I can show when I'm asked that 'what are you doing with your life' question. It doesn't appear 'productive' in the sense that we are culturally trained to expect. But I think it is. I think it's productive in some ways that are different than the type of productivity I used to engage in - not a better or more important productivity - just a different one.
So my couple of hours yesterday, walking and talking, was productive. It nurtured a friendship. It gave both of us the opportunity to learn from the others' perspective. It gave us time to think out loud together - and doing that causes us to examine and question our beliefs and our values. Plato defined thinking as "the talking of the soul with itself." Given our current political and cultural climate, taking time to really think through why we believe what we believe seems important - a very productive use of time. Spending some time in self-reflection helps us to see some of the weaknesses in our thinking and gives us the opportunity to challenge ourselves to grow - to make our particular little corner of the world a bit kinder and more compassionate - a bit better.
4 hours ago