Where I grew up, you worked hard. You cleared your plate. A hard day was a good day. Sick days were for wimps, lay-ins for layabouts. If you were banging your head against a brick wall and it wasn’t working, you just needed to bang a wee bit harder, a wee bit longer.
If I ever complained about anything, my dad would ruffle my hair, fix me with a hard stare and tell me it was ‘character building’. If there was one thing we knew, it was that you never, ever gave up before a thing was done.
I am about to leave a job that I have loved and have worked very hard at. In leaving, I’m going to be leaving a whole heap of things undone, and of the many things that are hard about this transition season, it’s perhaps this that I have wrestled with most. I would like to have somehow fixed everything that needed fixing, built everything that needed building, and then taken all that work, tied it up with a big bow, and presented it with a flourish – ta-dah!
But even if that were possible, who or what would that be in service of?
There’s a story in the bible that takes place just as Jesus first sets out on his ministry. He arrives in the town of Capernaum and word gets out that he’s there, and that he’s a great healer and so, we’re told, the whole town gathers and Jesus heals many people.
What a perfect situation, right? A great need to be met, and a man with the gift to meet it. There was plenty of opportunity for those around Jesus to benefit too – common practice would have been for Jesus to essentially set up shop in Capernaum, and for his family and disciples and others to have been able to sell refreshments and all sorts of bells and whistles to the queuing, hopeful sick.
But the very next morning, after this great start, Jesus is nowhere to be found. When his disciples eventually find him, up in the hills all alone, they scold him.
“Everyone is looking for you!”, they say.
They might just as well have been Scottish parents –
“What do you think you’re doing, wandering around up here?! Get back to your work!”
But Jesus says no. He says,
“Let’s go somewhere else, so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”
I LOVE this part of the story. Note that Jesus does not wring his hands, feel torn, angst-ridden or guilt-addled, bang on about how difficult it is to walk away when people need him so much, or bore his friends and family with endless ruminations about whether or not he’s ‘doing the right thing’.
It would have been so easy just to stay in Capernaum. There was an established business model, a clear need, and the crowd loved him. But Jesus wasn’t swayed by any of that. No. Here is a man with a plan. With purpose and clarity, and with the confidence and courage and, above all, the humility, to act accordingly.
It’s the humility bit that has struck me most as I’ve got my head around my own forthcoming departure. I’m coming to see that the desire to wrap everything up with a bow is, ultimately, an ego trip. It’s all about me – the satisfaction of feeling like a good girl for having cleared my plate, done my homework, finished my chores.
The thing is, though, that by centering me, that approach demeans the work. It reduces the work to simply a task to be completed, some small, standalone thing instead of being a part of something much bigger, more beautiful and more meaningful – something that started long before me, and will continue long after me.
We’re currently on holiday in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and in the past week I’ve had the opportunity to visit both Lincoln Cathedral and York Minster (imagine the childrens’ delight!). I adore cathedrals – the audacity of their ambition, the vast scale and intricate detail, the elaborate grandeur of a structure holding the simplicity of cool air, a stone floor, a lit candle, a whispered prayer.
I also love how they were created over centuries and continue to evolve. Nobody ever lived to see a cathedral ‘finished’. It’s this that prompted Stephen Hawking to use the term ‘cathedral thinking’ to capture the notion of chasing an idea, a dream, a project that is bigger than our capacity to master it and will outlive us.
If I am truly committed to the work I have been doing, and truly love the firm and the people I have been doing it for, I need to subvert my ego, forego the superficial satisfaction of ticking tasks off a list, and have both the humility and the confidence to let it go and let it be what it will be.
That’s a hard lesson indeed but it is also a hugely liberating one. The imperative question for all of us, surely, is to figure out what is given for us to do. What, amidst all the urgency and clamour and possibility in the world, is specifically my work to do right here, right now? Or in the words of Frederick Buechner, where does my greatest passion meet the world’s greatest need? Once we are clear about that, it becomes easier to walk away from everything else, and easier to forgive ourselves for a job half done.
As The Reverend Jane Bailey said on a recent episode of the wonderful podcast On Being:
“There is something about the fact that we are mortal, that there is a definite beginning, middle and end to the arc of our lives, that is at once humbling but also frees us up so much. It does allow us to have this generational view that I’m here, and one day I’m not going to be here, and so I can do what I can do during this time…If I could go back and talk to a younger version of myself, I would say, ‘It’s okay not to build the whole house. It’s okay to lay the foundation and be satisfied in that.’”
I am reaching the end of a season in participating in one great adventure, and about to participate in another. And that is all exciting and terrifying and happy and sad and exactly as it should be.
I am hugely grateful, always, for my no-nonsense upbringing. It has gifted me the grit and resilience that has seen me through all sorts of challenges. But I am glad, too, to have finally learned the lesson that sometimes leaving things half done is the best, bravest and most beautiful thing to do.