How We Spend Our Days

female hands with pen writing on notebook on grass outside

Sermon #39 (24th November 2019 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

I’ve got a confession to make. It’s about something that’s afflicted me all my life. And I guess some of you already suspected. You’ll have seen the signs. I’m sorry to say… I’ve got a bit of a problem with procrastination. [pause]

Or possibly it’s more of a problem with the length my to-do list and the every-growing number of tasks I take on and say ‘yes’ to (without taking account, realistically, of how many hours there are in the day). A lot of these tasks get done just-in-time, I’m sorry to say, while I’m burning the midnight oil, with more deadline-related drama than is probably necessary. I’ve always been this way. And I know last week Sarah spoke about her own relationship to time too: the habit of – hopefully – cramming just-one-more-thing into an already-busy schedule.

So, a while back, in an attempt to break this procrastinate-y habit-of-a-lifetime, I started reading up on strategies for time management and productivity. I signed up for various motivational mailing lists offering hints and tips on how to make the most out of your day and achieve your full potential.

As a result, each morning, I get a bunch of emails with subject lines like: ‘One Simple Productivity Secret People Never Talk About’, ‘How to Quickly Crush 7 Little Things that are Ruining your Productivity’, and ‘How an Ancient Greek Philosophy can Give Your Productivity a Boost’… and I sit there eagerly reading all these pumped-up emails most days over my breakfast (y’know, instead of actually getting on with things on my to-do list)… though I probably have learned a few useful things about how to be at least a little bit more efficient along the way.

I increasingly find myself wondering, though, about a deeper take on time and how we use it.

There’s a short quotation, by the author Annie Dillard, which I first heard many years ago. It floats through my mind every now and then, though it’s one of those sayings where the more I think about it, the less certain I am what she actually meant by it. See what you think. This is the quotation which inspired the theme of today’s service. Annie Dillard said:

‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’

[repeat] ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’. [pause]

I wonder what reaction arises in you as you hear those words? I find it’s a saying that can strike me as being either quite challenging, or quite comforting, depending on the day. One day I can hear it as ‘Look at all these opportunities you have to shape your own life’s meaning! Each new day is a fresh chance to do something worthwhile and leave your mark on the world’. Another day it sounds more like ‘what are you even doing with your life? Wasting the days away…’ The way I react to it is almost like an ink-blot test which reveals my underlying mood. ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives’. It’s such a short quotation but one that’s packed with paradox, I reckon, one which hints at the tension there is – in all our lives – between doing and being.

A question which occurs to me, one for each of us to ponder in our own heart, is this: How would we want to spend our life? Or, to put it another way, perhaps: What do we hope our life’s legacy will be? What meaning will we have made of it all? When we get to the very end – if we have a chance to look back on how we’ve spent all those days, how we’ve spent the one precious life on earth we’ve been given – what do we hope it will all have amounted to? And there’s a further, clarifying, question: How does this line up with what might be required of us – by God, the world, the cosmos – what we might be called to do with our lives for the sake of something greater than ourselves? For some, perhaps, this is the ultimate guiding principle for how we choose to spend our lives.

(I know these are tough questions – ones that we might wrestle with for the rest of our days!)

One of the things we can take from Annie Dillard’s words is a reminder that if we have ambitious aspirations for our lives – perhaps we dream of creating a literary masterpiece or helping to bring about a revolution – we can’t keep putting it off until tomorrow if we want to make those dreams a reality. We ought to be doing something towards our cherished goals today – even if it’s a very little something – because the now, this moment, is all we’ve got, and our lives all too soon get away from us. As Annie Dillard says, ‘What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.’

Whether we’re striving to make a particularly big splash in the world, or not, we will all leave a legacy of some sort when our time is up, and what it
amounts to will emerge out of how we have chosen to spend our days. Making our lives meaningful is not primarily about striving for newsworthy achievements and worldly status though. Think, instead, about the legacy of love and caring you might leave – by raising a family, helping to organise a community, standing up for people who are downtrodden and discriminated against, tending a little plot of land – you might not win a Nobel prize in the process but it will still add up to a life very well spent. How we choose to spend each hour that’s at our disposal is deeply significant. I should say, I’m conscious that not all of us have that much freedom to choose, in our present society, being constrained by factors such as health, finances, perhaps excessively long working hours and caring responsibilities – but how we each choose to spend those hours in which we do have some freedom is crucial. The world is full of seemingly endless need; there’s no shortage of worthwhile work to be done.

BUT…. Life is not all about doing. And it’s important to remember this, especially as people of faith. We live in a society where human worth all too often seems, shamefully, to be measured solely in terms of a person’s productivity. Here, though, in this church, the message is radically different: every single human has inherent worth and dignity; we are worthy and beloved no-matter-what. Yes, there’s no end of work to be done – sacred and holy work for the healing of the world too – but in striving to follow their calling, fulfil their potential, or meet the world’s endless need, people often neglect to look after themselves properly, and risk burnout. We are worth more than that. There can be a sort of violence embedded in this fervent drive for achievement and productivity even when it seems to arise from the best of intentions or seems to be in aid of a good cause. Of course we should aspire to make a positive mark on the world, leave it better than we found it. But, in a paradoxical way, it both matters and doesn’t matter what we choose to do with our life.

Think back to the reading by Elizabeth Tarbox we heard earlier where she set out lamenting ‘another day when the good I do falls so far short of the good that I could do…’ but as she walks by the shore her perspective shifts from doing to being: ‘when I am here at the edge of creation…the need to do good rolls away’ and she is ultimately reassured by the realisation that ‘what I have done or failed to do has left no noticeable mark on creation… now I AM HERE and grateful to be touched, calmed, and healed by the immense pattern of the universe.’

We might feel down on ourselves for not making enough of a difference in a desperate world, for not acting in ways that are as kind, or loving, or creatively brilliant as we might have wished. But Elizabeth Tarbox reminds us that we don’t have to do anything at all to deserve cosmic love. Just be.

I still wonder, though, if there’s a dynamic balance to be found between doing and being. Between work and rest. Striving for self-improvement and accepting yourself just-as-you-are. Maria Popova, writer and curator of the excellent ‘Brain Pickings’ blog on all things artistic and philosophical, describes this as ‘the existential tension between presence and productivity’. Life coach, Ariane Kessel, has also reflected on the implications of Annie Dillard’s words. She makes the observation that, if you don’t consciously keep an eye on this dynamic balance, you are likely to veer off in one of two directions: you can find yourself engaging in lots of productive activity towards achieving your goals (but neglecting relationships and self-care) OR you can pay proper attention to self-care and relationship-maintenance (but wander off and spend much of your remaining time on slightly random, often compulsive, activities which don’t really align with your long-term intentions as to what your life is all about). For Kessel, it seems, the ideal balancing act would result in a daily life aligned with your cosmic sense of purpose whilst also being grounded in proper care of self-and-others.

I don’t think she’s saying this is easy! It will take mindfulness, intention, and commitment to notice which way we’re veering at any given moment, and course-correct as necessary. I’m thinking, perhaps, that having signed up for all those daily ‘productivity’ emails, I could do with signing up for a parallel-universe mailing list which will coach me on how to be ‘unproductive’ too! One which would remind me of the value of doing nothing, whimsically drifting for a while, being blissfully idle – advocating for the benefits of saying ‘no’ to all purposeful activity, at least for a while, so we can truly say ‘yes’ to making space for reconnection, rest and renewal – knowing that this restorative fallow time will most likely help us rediscover our enthusiasm and oomph that we have something more to give when we’re back ‘on the clock’ once again. Maybe it will even enable us to return to our responsibilities with a greater sense of joy & purpose. Dillard herself speaks up for habit, routine, and daily rhythm, all necessary stabilising structures which build in protected time for both work and rest, doing and being, productivity and presence.

Another writer, Laura Schadler, reflects on her own life in the light of Dillard’s words. She writes:

‘I start to wonder what exactly it is I’m doing with this hour and that, and if it’s really how I want to spend my life. When I worry about my hours it’s [my use of] technology I immediately turn to for critique and ritualized rejection. Yet, I’ve come to realize it’s much more about habits, thoughts, intention and energy. It’s about mindfulness. In many ways it’s no better use of your hours to be wilfully out of touch, or non-participatory, a luddite or a hermit. Those inclinations bring their own set of issues and challenges. Still, [she continues], when I think of the hours that equal my life I want to be careful. It’s true we need down time, guilty pleasures, bad habits and superficial indulgences. I’m a huge fan of having an eclectic mix of interests and pursuits. We need to text back and forth in [silly] emojis. We need to connect or retreat at certain times for a gajillion reasons.
A life can’t be all one way, or all another. It’s countless tiny, moving parts. But Annie Dillard’s assertion is a meditative reminder that we need to keep the balance in our life more heavily geared toward the beautiful, the sincere, the focused, the real-life connected, the tangible, the creative, the political, the adventurous, the strange, the engaged and attentive.’

Words from Laura Schadler.

Ponder for a moment your own life. How do you spend your days? How do you feel about the balance between presence and productivity? Maybe the balance has shifted this way and that over the course of a lifetime.

And is there something you love to do, or which you dream of doing, which isn’t happening in your life right now, because there doesn’t seem to be the necessary space & time for it? Are you, perhaps, too caught up in worldly demands to give yourself to what matters most? What is it you want to leave behind – when all’s said and done – what legacy of love and caring? Might you consider changing things up, re-prioritising, making time for it while you still can?

And do you have a way of regularly checking-in-with-yourself – daily prayer, or journalling perhaps – to reflect on your doing and being? You might find it helpful to set aside time at the end of each day to review and relish it; to remember with gratitude your joys and pleasures, and celebrate your achievements; to notice how you have spent your day and how you’ve done at the daily balancing act. And then – hand it over to God, as the saying goes – knowing that you are loved regardless. I’d like to close now with an echo of those words by Vanessa Rush Southern which Sarah read for us earlier. She speaks to the push-and-pull between productivity and presence:

‘So much undone. So much to do.
So much to heal in us and the world…
[But] If your body won’t do what it used to, for right now let it be enough.
If your mind won’t stop racing or can’t think of the [right] word, let it be enough…
You are part of the plan for this world’s salvation, of that I have no doubt.
The world needs its oceans of people striving to be good…
[but, some days, some of us just won’t feel up to the task].
So rest, then, as you must…
Rest in [this place] made to hold weary lives in space,
carved out for the doing of nothing much, but being.
Perhaps then you will feel in your bones, in your weary heart,
the aching, healing sense that this is enough. That we are enough.’


Sermon by Jane Blackall

An audio recording of this sermon is available: