Productivity vs. Death

Let death shape how we spend our time, not the fear of it.

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Deacon Basil Ryan BalkeJust before writing this article, I was spending some time listening to several podcasts and books on productivity. There are all sorts of resources in this space, and all sorts of ways of becoming more efficient and more effective as a person, work or whatever you may find yourself as. For me, as a younger man, social media feeds are full of questionable people preaching the need to engage in “the hustle,’’ or quotes out of place and context from stoic philosophers about memento mori, or remembering one’s death.

Clergy has not been immune from this either, which has led to specialty programs with trite and pointless statements like “mind over mattress” when speaking about how we should approach ministry. I am sure the reader has seen such things, as well, about the hustle culture.

I was complaining about this to my wife, and she, in her significantly superior wisdom, asked me what, if I were to write a book to help people increase productivity, would it be about? I thought about it briefly and came up with the title: “Death Doesn’t Care about Your CV.”

This is the key to something that is so very important: that much of this hustle culture is the cult of productivity, a desire to hide from our own decline and, in the end, our death. We push this idea that if we get all caught up in our email box, if we try some new system or if we stop wasting time, then we will be able to fulfill all of our goals and dreams.

The proponents of this cult of productivity will speak about death regularly. One that I saw pointed out that there are only 1,440 minutes in a day, and then asked how are you spending yours. But here’s the point: We do have a limited amount of time, but we, as Christians, believe that this is not the end. We can take this as a fearful thing and think about how we will be judged (I think we already do that well enough though). Or, what if we also looked at it from the opposite side, which is, does a lot of this stuff matter in light of eternity?

The Church Fathers knew this all too well when they spoke about the concept of despondency, or acedia. For the Fathers, despondency meant the emotional inability to do what someone ought to do. In other words, the emotional inability to show up to prayers in the morning is an example of acedia. The Fathers point to the example of creating a fantasy in one’s mind that will distract you from the humdrum of daily tasks, one which is always more exciting than what you are doing now.

Despondency is often associated with sloth, and it was transitioned by St. Gregory the Great when he developed the list of the seven deadly sins as sloth. But despondency is much more than just not doing things, because it is also about doing the wrong things. It’s about being so obsessed with productivity that we are missing the whole point.

The remedy, I believe, is actually not that far away from what social media productivity people are saying, remember your death. Memento mori. Let the reality of our coming deaths sink in to how we look at our to-do lists. Let the reality of my coming death help direct how I would like to spend my time. In light of death, does it matter that my inbox is unorganized? In light of death, does it matter that my garage has some cobwebs?

In light of death, does it matter that I wasted time with my children? Yes, I think it does, because I am going to die one day. I want to be the sort of person who spent time with and wasted time with my kids. In other words, memento mori, let death shape how we spend our time, not the fear of it.

FATHER DEACON BASIL RYAN BALKE is a Byzantine deacon, licensed professional counselor, director of Mount Tabor Counseling,; one of the hosts of the Catholic Psyche Podcast,; and director of custom solutions for the Center for InMinistry Development, He serves as a deacon of the Eparchy of Phoenix.

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