Blog #20: Redefining Productivity, First in a Three-Part Series

A Mimi and Eunice cartoon

Our culture has an unhealthy definition of what it means to be productive. Education’s purpose is to create productive members of our economy. We measure an individual’s worth by his or her contribution to the Gross National Product: we can fall into the trap of defining a productive member of society as someone who has a paying job or whose work leads to results that improve a financial bottom line.

We miss out on the gifts of those who produce intangible results, like increasing the amount of love and beauty in the world.. One of the most productive people I know is a man I’ll call Robby.  Robby lived at Faribault State Hospital, brought there as a young child by his family to live at the Hospital because he had Down’s Syndrome. I was matched with him in a buddy program run by my college. We would meet up once a week for two years, do group activities together, bowl, draw pictures, or walk around the campus holding hands.  I graduated.  When I returned to the campus a year later for a visit, I joined the mentoring program for their Saturday trip.  I saw Robby, but not before Robby saw me. He remembered me!! He came running up to me style, grinning with joy, and reaching out his hand so we could walk together again.  Robby added much to my life, his memory is a.blessing.He produced love, loyalty, and joy in our world. By letting me love him, he changed my world in particular, and increased the net amount of goodness in our world.

My mother had two Master’s degrees. A reference librarian, a volunteer in civic organizations, a knitter, supportive of the arts, and an enthusiastic shopper, she was what our society would call a very productive person. Her health declined, and she was unable to walk , or use her hands due to an essential tremor. She was no longer “a contributing member of society”.. However her face lit up  when I or another visitor, came into the room. She prayed for her friends and family, and was pleasant to and supportive of her roommate who had dementia. In the most important way, she was productive: she loved, and was loved.

Being able to receive love is a great measure of what makes a person productive.  As we love someone, it changes us as we learn to value people for who they are, not for what they accomplish or what they do for us.  Loving an infant, loving a friend who is in the last stages of ALS or lost in the mysterious world of Alzheimer: receiving our love, they are productive, producing profound changes that are beyond measure.

We tend to value ourselves by how we much do, or  what we contribute to the economy. We definite our productivity by the numbers: how much money we earn, how many products we have sold, how many people we have helped, how many hours we work, how much time we spend cleaning or volunteering, or the number of cookies we’ve baked, masks we’ve made , miles we’ve run, or pounds we’ve lost.  We confuse who we are with what we do.

Maybe that’s why it’s traumatic for so many to retire, be downsized, or no longer be able to work in a paid job. The first question we get asked when we are introduced, “So, what do you do?” The whole culture conspires to measure our worth by what we do. But it’s who we are that matters most and will make the most difference in the long run.

A star generates light millions of miles away from our planet, and the light finally reaches us many years later. The star itself may have died by the time we look up and see its light in our night sky.   Who we are, the love we give and the love we receive, changes the world, and the effects of that love will last long after we ourselves have gone the way of the star.

It’s seductive to judge ourselves by what we do, to measure ourselves harshly when we don’t feel we’ve accomplished much. It’s tempting to use that same ruler to weigh others’ worth, but we risk missing out on what matters when we succumb to defining others by their economic viability.

Whoever lets us love them, they are giving us a gift. Those who receive our love, whether or not they can return it, are productive. They are changing the world, forever.

Today’s Prayer Poem:  “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good [or productive].
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Grace and peace to you,



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