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Being Productive In All the Wrong Ways (an end-of-semester tale)

This is an accurate representation of my professional capabilities at the end of a semester.

We just completed our last week of classes, so another semester is almost in the books.  During the week ahead students will submit final projects, and I will spend my time grading and answering emails that ask, "What is my grade and can it magically become an A?"  In the meantime, I am becoming active and efficient in every other single facet excluding my professional life, resulting in the following recent misplaced surge of productivity:

  • Purging expired items from my pantry.

  • Improved arrangement of the salad dressings in my refrigerator using an arbitrary scale that considered not only bottle size and shape, but also salad dressing color.

  • Spray-painting a mirror that benignly had hung on a wall for years but suddenly no longer "looked right."

  • Cleaning of bathroom baseboards.

  • Rearranged bookshelves, filing cabinets, and desk drawers in my campus office.

  • Organized toiletries in my medicine cabinet.

  • Sudden desire to scour the house for items to populate next summer's garage sale.

  • Emptying old receipts from my wallet.

  • Gathering coins from my wallet, compartments in our vehicles, and the kitchen counter's change dish to take to the bank's change machine.

  • Deeply introspective analysis of all the shoes I own to determine which ones I regularly wear, which ones I only think I wear, and which ones have seen better days.

  • Ditto for my shirts.  And my jeans.

  • Discovery of 17 books that I'd like to read for pleasure.

It hasn't yet gotten so bad that I've given adequate thought to useful and seasonally-appropriate tasks, like planning or sending Christmas cards or making a Christmas shopping list.  Nope.  Part of the charm surrounding my end-of-semester cascade of productivity is that it only touches upon matters that have little-to-no urgency.

So, if you're looking for someone to organize your spices alphabetically or help you purge your storage closet, I'm your girl.  Drop me a line or visit my house where you'll find me doing something entirely unnecessary.

Steep Hills. Wood Stoves. Hallmark Movies.

I've made a point to take more walks lately.  Part of this might be to test the "there's-no-such-thing-as-bad-weather, only-inappropriate-clothing" quote as we plunge into the winter months and I attempt to master the art of layering.  I'm also adjusting my exercise habits to account for my injured shoulder. Even though I no longer can do push ups, overhead presses, or bent-over rows, at least I still can take a walk.

So, walking it is.

I have three standard walking routes from my house -- one out my front door to the right, one out my front door to the left, and another that I just call "up the hill."

It's a great hill, really.  The picture might not do justice to its steep climb, but when you finally reach the point when the road turns and then flattens, you feel like you've accomplished something.

The road, now comfortably flat, continues another half mile or so until it reaches a dead end.  During stretches when trees frame the street, you feel comfortably hedged in.  During the stretch when the trees have cleared for open farmland, you can see for miles.

Now that the leaves have fallen from the trees, it's easier to see the few houses, discretely tucked far back from the road, that populate the street.  One is flanked by a mechanic's garage, a quiet business I never before had noticed until I smelled its wood stove and talked to the mechanic who was taking a break outside.

Wood stoves have to rank as one of the all-time best winter smells.  In wafts of smoke blown by the wind's fancy, the scent of a wood stove is a magical fragrant alchemy of a fire's warmth and the air's chill, and its heartwarming deliciousness makes me wonder if I inadvertently have breathed my way into a Hallmark Christmas movie, minus the ranch, the ice rink, and the spontaneous sledding.

The last time I walked my "up the hill" route, I snagged a small branch with winter-red berries to adorn the potted plant on my kitchen windowsill.  Each time I look at the branch, I think of the walk and its sights and smells, and it nudges me to come back again soon.

Steep climbs are often worth it.  I stumbled into my own Hallmark movie, after all, and it only took a mile to get there.

There are many terrible ways to measure self-worth. This is not one of them.

A story I heard years ago recently came to the forefront of my memory.  For weeks and months, day in and day out, a woman had been discouraged every time she stepped on the scale.  She tried to do everything right by exercising regularly and eating as well as she knew how, yet the number that flashed before her each morning always seemed too large.

And every day, her sense of attractiveness and self-worth suffered because of that number.

At one point, the woman traveled and noticed a scale in her guest bathroom.  Tentatively, she stepped on it, waiting for the same judgment to appear on its screen.  But this scale was different.  She weighed much less.  Thinking it was a fluke, she stepped on another scale at a store later that day.  The same good report came back: she was significantly lighter than she had thought.

Turns out, the scale she had used at home every day had been wrong all along.  A false number had caused her such pain and insecurity.

At first glance, it might be easy to be lulled by the story's tidy ending, projecting that the woman moved forward in her life with increased confidence.  But, if I may be entirely candid, let me share the reason I recently remembered the story at all.  The other night while my husband was trying to sleep, I whispered something that had been weighing on my heart. "I've been looking at my blog stats," I began.  "They seem low.  I think they're really low."

As my words spilled forth, I confessed to him in the darkness that at one point, after I had published a well written post that only garnered marginal pageviews, I even had wondered if the site's measurements were off.  Maybe it's not counting right?  Maybe there's supposed to be a zero added to the end?

Maybe it's broken.

And that's when I remembered the story about the woman and the scale.  Then I wondered something darker: what if the scale we're using -- whether for our literal weight, our blog stats, or some other measurement -- is accurate?  What if it's as bad as we fear? Where's the redemption in our stories if those numbers, cold and hard on a screen, don't equate with what we (or what the world) deems to be beautiful, successful, or good?

That's hard to swallow.  It was hard for me to swallow that night lying in bed, feeling as if I were failing somehow.

In the subsequent days, I kept mulling over the story.  The longer I thought about it, the more I realized something striking.  In many ways, it didn't matter whether the scale was accurate or not.  The woman's self-esteem hinged on its number, both when it was high and when it was low.  The scale held a lot of power.

And maybe, just maybe, that's what's broken.  After all, it's terribly easy to measure our worth by factors that truly don't capture our worth. 
It's terribly easy to measure our worth by factors that truly don't capture our worth.
I know this in my head.  Over the years I've written about it, I've spoken about it, and I've encouraged others about it.  But sometimes I need a refresher.  I need to drop the message ten inches from my head and tuck it into my own heart.

Today, my friend, maybe you need this reminder, too.  We're bombarded by quantitative data that supposedly indicates how well we're performing.  Numbers capture our salaries, our size, our followers, and our work performance.  Numbers comprise my college students' grades, and numbers reflect my teaching performance.  Numbers measure the speed, strength, tackles, completions, and every possible on-the-field nuance performed by the football players who my husband works with daily.

We can't escape it.  We live in a data-driven world, and it's accentuated by how easily this data is spread, shared, commented upon, and compared. 

Still, we don't have to let it define us.  Numbers measure something, but that something is not our worth.

I'm not so naive to believe that numbers never matter.  We enjoy feeling good about ourselves, after all, and losing a few pounds can be a mood-booster that makes us feel healthy, capable of reaching goals, and committed to our well-being.  If this blog post is read broadly by tons, not tens, of readers, I'll enjoy the uptick.  If someone gets a raise, or a student earns a good grade, or a running back breaks a record for yards rushed, it's healthy to rejoice over those numbers.  They're great accomplishments.

But accomplishments, whether noteworthy or not, never paint the whole picture.  They don't capture the heart.  They don't reflect our effort or discipline when we remain faithful.  Numbers don't account for moments of anonymity when we do something simply because it's right and we're called to do it, not because it will be measured or rewarded.  Numbers don't take into account when God says, "Well done, my child."

I won't lie, I wouldn't mind having more traffic -- like, rush hour on the Capitol Beltway traffic -- for my blog.  But, in my core, I know I won't be any more content or successful if my blog explodes.  I write with the goal to encourage my readers: to make you nod along in understanding, bolster your faith, and cause you to laugh.  I want you to leave here feeling better than when you came.  When this is my focus -- not blogging stats -- my time spent writing is healthy, helpful, and in alignment with God's will.

And that's successful.

There are plenty of terrible ways to measure our worth.  Let's throw out the broken scales.  And, perhaps, let's tread lightly even when, for better or for worse, our scales seem to be accurate.

After all, something as arbitrary as a number never can fully capture the essence of our worth.

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