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

Imposter syndrome is hard, but comes with a hidden lesson (subscriber content)

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 through a  two-week lockdown to flatten the curve. Headed round the bend toward 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.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly. Note: This essay is currently available only to CW digital subscribers. 

Image: Rod Allday / A fallow field on the Trewidden Estate via Wikimedia Commons

With God Under the Bed: Darwin’s immediate book meme

Speaking of books, let’s do this thing about what we’re reading! (I can’t remember why I wrote “speaking of books,” but apparently I was when I started writing this. Well, there are worse things to speak of.)

1. What book are you reading right now?

Meh. I’m in the middle of a bunch of books and not happy about any of them. 

Whisper My Name by Ernest Hebert

is a sequel to a book I loved, The Dogs of March. The series takes place in Darby, a fictional version of the exact spot in NH where I live, and boy does he understand what it’s like here. Dogs of Winter was like Faulkner meets Hemingway. Whisper My Name is veering a little bit into Walker Percy-style “man meets troubled girl, and va va voom” territory and it’s making me itchy, but I guess I’ll keep going. 

Also re-reading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, about terrible people in Academia,

which is making me laugh out loud but feel bad about it. I just finished scene where he makes several choices about how to deal with the fact that he set his boss’ wife’s guest bed on fire and it just about murdered me. The protagonist has a habit of swiftly and privately making grotesque faces that express how he feels about people he encounters, and that reminds me, it may be okay that we’re supposed to start wearing masks again. 

Also re-reading Morgan’s Passing by Anne Tyler.

If you haven’t read an Anne Tyler novel (and there are about 700 of them), I would recommend Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, where I think she was at her full powers — the least prone to precious quirky self-indulgence, and the most fearless and tender toward people doing dreadful things for understandable reasons. (Homesick Restaurant has scenes of child abuse.) Morgan’s Passing is pretty good, but I think she’s a little too patient with Morgan and his midlife problems. I just want to kick his ass.

1a. Readaloud

Just finished The Princess and Curdie.

The kids had a bit of a love/hate relationship with it, as is appropriate for George MacDonald. I know I’ve complained before about the profoundly Victorian unreadability of some of his sentences, and I’ll do it again. Just say it, man! 

But the Curdie books are probably the most accessible of his, except for The Light Princess, which is the easiest to read and also the most coherent and straightforward story. The Princess and Curdie is a sequel that’s better than the first book (The Princess and the Goblin), which we also read aloud. It has such good images in it: Young Curdie and his aged father meeting each other halfway up a hill, and if you saw them from a distance, you wouldn’t immediately know who was climbing and who was descending. This idea is carried forward when Curdie is given the power to identify what it is that people are becoming by touching their hands. Some hands feel human, but others feel like the paws or hooves or tentacles of animals. And the reverse is also true: There are fabulous avenging monsters in the story, who are apparently working out their salvation and becoming human again.

You can see how MacDonald’s great admirer C.S. Lewis was influenced by (or at least agreed with) this idea that, by the way we live, we carry heaven or hell within us even before we die. This idea is in The Great Divorce and The Last Battle and probably several others. 

Anyway, between that and the imagery of the great princess purifying her beloved children by heaping burning roses on them, and weeping as she does it, I’m glad we read it. BUT THE ENDING. If I had remembered it ended that way, I would simply have skipped the final page. I was reading the book to the six-year-old and the ten-year-old, and some of the teens were listening in. The ending is basically: The young princess grows up and marries the hero and the kingdom is wonderful. But they don’t have children and then die, and then there’s a bad king, and things get worse and worse until he literally undermines the kingdom and it all crashes down and everyone dies, and then no one even remembers it existed. Well, goodbye!  Generally, I respect authors to do what they want with their stories but there was no preparation for this happening, other than a general feeling that the story was a broad analogy for humanity in general. Truly unnecessary and the kids were rightly horrified. Boo.

Up next: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight translated by Tolkein.

The Green Knight movie comes out soon and it looks absolutely swell.

I read the Sir Gawain by Marie Borroff to the kids many years ago (that’s the one we read in college), in our last year of homeschooling, and they were spellbound. I remember skipping all the other lessons for the day because they wanted me to keep reading to the end.  But [sighs until dead] it was a lot easier to spellbind them in those days.

Here’s how the Tolkein begins:

When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes,
the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
was tried for his treachery, and the most true upon earth–
it was Aeneas the noble and his renowned kindred
who then laid under them lands, and lords became
of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Isles. 

More fun to read aloud than ol’ George MacD, anyway! Heck, maybe I’ll pay the kids to give the first few chapters a fair shot. And then buy them movie tickets. Those poor children, how they suffer. 

2. What book did you just finish?

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

At first this struck me as a rather heavy handed “Have you ever seen such cruelty” kind of book, ala Isabelle Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea or Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue, but it grew on me, and I was impressed at how the author brought two stories together. It follows the lives of two girls in Afghanistan, one born in the late sixties and one in the late seventies. The prose is a bit movie storyboard-y at times, but it’s very sincere and creates a strong mental image of the setting. A painful and beautiful read. As far as I know, it’s a faithful rendition of the history, and fleshed out my skimpy understanding of the era before 9/11 (but it definitely reads like a novel, not a sneaky history lesson). The reading level seems aimed at smart middle school or high school age, but it includes fairly graphic scenes of rape and violence, so reader beware. 

I also recently finished The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken.

This one is a YA book, but Joan Aiken always uses her whole butt and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. Really never read a dud by her. The Shadow Guests is a weird, compelling story about Cosmo, a teenage boy who’s sent to live in the countryside with his great aunt after his mother and older brother apparently killed themselves to avoid succumbing to a family curse. But the past isn’t done with his family, and Cosmo becomes entangled with previous generations. It sounds dark and awful, but it’s very entertaining and funny in parts, and the dialogue and characters are so skillfully and realistically done even as the plot itself is outrageous. We recently read Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase out loud, and it was just as good as I remember. Aiken’s male teenage characters are the most appealing people you’ll ever meet. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

Watership Down by Richard Adams

I started it several years ago and didn’t get very far, but I hope to keep going this time. Damien’s been recommending it for years.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

ANY BOOK. I have almost completely ruined my brain with social media, so if I could finish anything at all, I’ll be pleased. 

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

With God In Russia by Walter Ciszek

I’m a bad Catholic reader and I should feel bad. I have now officially lost this book under the bed twice, once under the old bed and now once under the new bed. With God under the bed, I guess. 

6. What is your current reading trend? 

See (4.) 

That’s about it! Check out Darwin Catholic for the source of this meme, and let me know if you have any recommendations or dire warnings!