Working Diligently

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The plans of the diligent are sure of profit,/ but all rash haste leads certainly to poverty.

Proverbs 21: 5

Many years ago, a friend said to me: “John, you do everything fast.”  His comment reminded me of my childhood. Each evening, after supper, my parents and I would wash the dishes together. Inevitably, after we had finished, we would congratulate ourselves on the speed with which we had accomplished the task. One of the principal motivations for helping each other and for working together was that the task, whatever it was, could be accomplished more quickly.

It is somewhat constituent of our consciousness that the great value for us is to complete the task; it is to reach our goal as quickly as possible. The way, in both senses of the term, that we move or work towards the goal is far less important. Each moment, encounter, experience on the way is but a means to an end, not a value in its own right. This is the core of the conflict in the gospel story of Martha and Mary. For Martha, being a good host is paramount. For Mary, the presence of Jesus, so much the more valuable for its temporality and contingency, is primary. She gives herself over to the “one thing necessary,” while Martha misses that because of her anxieties concerning the duties before her.

Other than early childhood formation, why do I hurry and do things so fast. In good part, I am very much like Martha, “troubled and anxious about many things.”  It is anxiety that fuels the speed and compulsion with which I act. I am worried about getting finished, about completing the task, about reaching the goal and being able to do what is asked of me. I rush and hurry so that, when the task is completed, I may experience a moment of relief from the anxiety. That is, until life’s next demand emerges and it all begins again.

The verse from proverbs calls us to be diligent in our life and in our work. It suggests that diligence is the opposite of haste. At its root, diligence means to love, to care, and to be care-full. it is the realization that the moment, the presence, the task is sacred — not primarily our goal. It takes time to love and to be careful. To be diligent requires that we attend to and work with persons, situations, and things mindful of their inherent value and purpose. It means taking the time to let the moment and the task speak its reality and truth, and so to speak and to act responsibly and responsively to the summons of the moment.

In perhaps a more significant way, the call to be present in love and care is also related to our self-presence. Proverbs tells us that “rash haste leads to poverty.”  To behave and act in an unconsidered way does, of course, have poor outcomes more often than not. When we try to force more than is possible out of an activity or situation, we are almost certain to realize its limits. The same is true of ourselves. Is perhaps our haste and our force not an attempt to refuse our own poverty and limit? When we use our bodies and our minds in such a way that we cease to remain aware of our own capacities and limits, all we succeed in doing, in any ultimate way, is to wear ourselves out. So, diligence requires of us that we take ourselves, as we are, into account.

It is challenging to know and to live in accordance with our own pace. It is an act of obedience to come to know what we are able and unable to do. Many years ago, a teacher of ours was offering a presentation to a group that had gathered to hear him. Very early on in his presentation, a person from the back asked  him if he could speak louder. His response was unforgettable. He said: “I wish I could, but I am not able to. There is a seat here in the front if you would like to take it. I’m sure you could hear better from there.”  Sometimes diligence and also obedience require of us that we acknowledge our limits and work within them. It is truly surprising how often being diligent in our work requires of us the ability to say no to what we cannot do so that we can devote ourselves with love and care to what we can.

If we can’t rest, it’s because we haven’t stopped running. We began running a long time ago. We continue to run even in our sleep. We think that happiness and well-being are not possible in the here and the now. That belief is inherent in us. We received the seed of that belief from our parents and grandparents. They struggled all of their lives and believed that happiness was only possible in the future. That’s why when we were children, we were already in the habit of running. We believed that happiness was something to seek for in the future. But the teaching of the Buddha is that we can be happy right here, right now.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Happiness, pp. 56-7

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