When lockdown began in March I found myself, like so many others, at home indefinitely with an empty schedule. So, immediately, I started to look for ways to fill my, now abundant, free time. I wasn’t short of inspiration; social media headlines suggested I could learn a language or write a book, Jo Wicks championed the cause of lockdown fitness, and the news brought story after story of individuals raising staggering amounts for charity, all from a respectable social distance. Before long, I had ticked off many of what have now become the cliches of lockdown, but even after running a 5k, baking some banana bread and reading a few books, I was already feeling behind on what felt like a constant stream of suggestions on how to be productive in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
The illogical nature of trying to thrive in the face of a global pandemic left me wondering why the media response seemed to have such a strong focus on how we could maintain productivity despite the circumstances.
I believe it could be connected to why the first question we often ask a new acquaintance is ‘so, what do you do?’, why we love to ask children what they want to be when they grow up or why people wear being busy like a badge of honour. I think this priority to preserve productivity in a time when there is so much more at stake, reflects the unhealthy relationship our society has with productivity and work. Our work, or our studies, have become so much more than occupation and instead provide a significant source of validation, that we are productive and therefore successful people.
It isn’t productivity itself which is the problem but the idea that if you work hard, the reward, for example, a good job, or a good degree, will provide lasting satisfaction. Many are familiar with how quickly the joy of achievement is replaced with a new elevated goal, which can make living in a culture which so highly values work and accomplishments feel like the fate of the hero in Greek mythology destined to eternally push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down to the bottom. Ultimate satisfaction always remaining slightly out of reach.
Another problem is the importance of what you do, where you work or study, has come to signify how much respect you deserve with professional success a hallmark of a life well-lived. The close relationship between status and career shows we seem to have fallen into a trap of defining others, and more dangerously ourselves, by what we can do. Defining people by what they can contribute creates an unnecessary hierarchy in which value must be earned. More dangerously, it is the implicit suggestion that someone’s output can affect their worth. An idea that clashes with the belief in a person’s intrinsic value as a human.
So, what is the alternative?
As a Christian, I believe that God lays out a different way to live productively. Firstly, productivity itself is not wrong; God wants us to be productive but instead of working for self-fulfilment or personal achievement we should use our abilities for the good of others, to glorify God.
We see this idea in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30, Luke 19:11–27), which tells the story of a master who puts three of his servants in charge of a significant amount of money whilst he is away. On returning, he assesses how they have stewarded what he has given them and the returns they have made. The two who invested the money are rewarded, the other servant, too scared to risk his master’s money, receives nothing.
When we consider this a metaphor for our lives, it suggests we have been given valuable things, time, or skills, or qualities, and that God expects a return on this investment. This means we should work hard but also that we are released from how society measures success and therefore do not need to strive for money or respect or prestige. Instead, a truly productive and successful Christian need only answer the question, am I using the skills I have been given by God, for the good of others, in order to glorify him.