The hard lesson of being unproductive

Because I’m friends with a lot of creative people — painters, poets, authors, poets, clothing and jewelry designers — there is a lot of talk about impostor syndrome, the deeply internalized fear that one’s accomplishments are all a sham. Even though they have successful careers, they routinely have to hush the little voice telling them have no business calling themselves a professional, and that either everyone is already laughing at them, or it’s only a matter of time before the great denouement begins. (I am also friends with a few people who ought to feel this way, but don’t. Somehow it’s always the genuinely talented and accomplished people who feel the most like phonies, whereas there’s no shortage of confidence among the fakers, hacks, and bums.)

So a little service my friends and I perform for each other is to point out the obvious: But you’re doing it. You’re making a living. People are paying you for what you do. Your skills are in demand. If you’re not the real thing, then no one is. The objective evidence proves you are productive and successful. 

The task has been a bit different lately. Lots of creative people are in a bit of a rut. Can’t seem to come up with any ideas. Can’t seem to come up with any enthusiasm for expressing what they do come up with. Can’t seem to drum up a persuasive argument for why it’s worth while to try to express anything to anyone anyway, when everyone is so . . . well, you know. It was one thing when we were doing drawing challenges to get through a two-week lockdown to flatten the curve. Headed past the bend of two years, and the flattening effect has become pervasive, and very flat indeed. 

So the task becomes a bit different. Rather than persuade ourselves that what we produce really is extraordinary, really is above average, really is something special, my friends and I are busily reminding each other that we are valuable and worthy even when we’re not producing anything. And this is a steeper hill to climb. 

But it is a time that will come to all of us, sooner or later. Night, when no man works. The hour when the clock has run out, one way or the other, and we will no longer be able to point to our busywork as evidence for our worth.

For some people, this hour is their entire lives: They never make anything, they never accomplish anything. They simply exist, and the Christian ethos has always insisted that these souls are as worthy of love and respect as the most productive among us. There are saints who never did anything but sweep the floor, and saints who never did anything but pray. There are saints who only became saints after they lost their ability to accomplish the things they thought God put them on earth to do. 

I wish I were writing this essay as a guide to tell you how to get from A to B — how to remind yourself that you have intrinsic worth in the eyes of God, and that your value was never a matter of what you could accomplish or produce. I do know that God sometimes gets our attention by letting our accomplishments be taken away from us.

I’m in no place to teach any lessons, but I can at least point to them. I’m reading He Leadeth Me, and woof, that’s the story right there.

The author, Servant of God Walter Ciszek, tells about how he thought he was going to be a bold and amazing priest who evangelizes Russia, but when he gets there, it turns out he’s not allowed to preach; then he gets arrested and it turns out everyone he talks to has been taught to despise priests; and then he doesn’t even get to talk to anybody at all, except interrogators . . . for five years. 

And he breaks. He agrees to sign his name to a false confession of spying for the Vatican, and is horrified and grief-stricken at his own weakness. And this is the place where he finds himself totally reliant on the mercy and will of God. 

About halfway through the book, after he describes a strange and profound conversion where he fully surrenders to God’s will for the first time, he says:

“Somehow, that day, I imagined I must know how Saint Peter felt when he had survived his denials and been restored to Christ’s friendship. Even though our Lord had promised that he, being once converted, would confirm his brethren, I doubt very much that Peter ever again boasted that he would never desert the Lord even if all others deserted him. I find it perfectly understandable that Peter, in his letters to the early churches, should have reminded his Christians to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. For just as man begins to trust in his own abilities, so sure has he taken the first step on the road to ultimate failure. And the greatest grace God can give such a man is to send him a trial he cannot bear with his own powers–and then sustain him with his grace to he may endure to the end and be saved. “

I am not going to pretend I know what this really means. I’m just going to keep reading the book, which is fascinating and brutally honest about his interior struggles. I’m sure it’s no accident that this book came into my life when the theme of the last many months has been distress over how little I seem to be able to get done. Fr. Ciszek puts a lot of stock — his entire heart, in fact — in the value of being where God puts you, to do God’s will. I wish he had been more explicit about how to tell what God’s will is; but I have gathered, at least, that it’s more about being than about doing. And the good news is, he found tremendous joy, freedom, and relief when he surrendered to being entirely at God’s disposal, rather than trying to be productive. 

This is some good company, my friends, with Fr. Ciszek and St. Peter. If you are, like so many other people, struggling and feeling discouraged, or if you are not only struggling but have actually failed, then this is a time to pray that the place you’re in is a path toward God. It’s not a time to stop praying. That’s always a mistake; that much I know. It couldn’t hurt to pray to Fr. Ciszek. You know he’ll understand. 

Anyway, one thing “impostor syndrome” has taught me is that it’s one thing to recognize my own talents and skills objectively, but quite another to act as if I deserve special treatment because of them. I don’t. But the deeper lesson is that we’re all imposters, as long as we insist that our worth lies in what we can produce. 



Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

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7 thoughts on “The hard lesson of being unproductive”

  1. I read this several times to absorb it and got a little more of it every time. I’ll read it several more times, I’m sure. The part about there being no shortage of confidence among the hackers, fakes and bums – yes indeedy! Also putting that book on my Lenten reading list. Thanks Simcha.

  2. I read and absolutely loved Fr. Ciszek’s book. I’m so glad he has another enthusiastic fan! I was fortunate enough to encounter his work at the beginning of the pandemic, and it was immensely helpful then as well. I also appreciate that you posted this article here.

  3. I love this, and it resonates with me for several reasons. First, it seems silly but I’ve always had a visceral, negative reaction to the Thomas the Tank Engine cartoon’s emphasis on being really useful (my youngest adored the show). Just how “useful” is my oldest, who has Down Syndrome? But God loves and values him just as much as every other human, productive or not.

    Second, this is the second bit of writing I’ve read recently that discussed artists and their creativity. I’m an artist but I’m barely productive, ironically because I have to be productive in my other jobs (wife, mom, librarian). It makes me sad, sometimes, to think of what I could be creating if I only had the time.

  4. That book really gets at the heart of Christian life—acting like Christ to those around you. It’s humbling to note what a failure Christ was—crucified and abandoned. How triumphalist our church is and how we have such an inflated sense of what we can do as disciples. Our leader was not a guy who went from success to success. Our triumph is so much quieter.

  5. Simcha, I needed this profoundly today. Thank you for being a beacon. This lil sister in Christ loves you very much.

  6. Thank you for posting this essay here, as I was disappointed to be unable to read the entire article on Catholic Weekly when it was published last month. It was definitely worth the wait!

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