October 2017: One thing
I was driving home listening to a podcast when I heard someone say, ‘I got an email from my manager saying, “Friday would be a very bad time for your wife to have a baby.”’
I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. Then it got worse.
The speaker was Greg McKeown and he was being interviewed about his book, Essentialism: the disciplined pursuit of less (Virgin Books, 2014). He explained that his wife duly gave birth to their daughter on the Thursday. The next day, Greg was conflicted. Deep down he knew he should focus on his wife and daughter. But his manager’s voice kept going round his head. ‘Friday would be a bad time to have a baby because I need you to be at a meeting with X.’
To his shame, he went to the meeting. Afterwards his boss said, ‘The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.’ The look Greg had seen on their faces told them they thought he was a fool.
It’s a startling story. It helped change Greg’s life. It made me buy the book.
In it, he says that we are being overwhelmed by choice. The number of choices we face has grown much faster than our capacity to manage them.
Our society tells us three things – we can have everything; every option is important; we can have it all. Greg disagrees. All three are wrong. The reality is, we can do anything but not everything; only a few things really matter; we have to choose.
Most of us spend our days listening to the many voices that bombard us. We are shaped by the opinions of our friends, what’s trending on Twitter and the verdict of pundits. We are so busy listening to what everyone else thinks, we don’t actually know what we ourselves think. We are so busy jumping through everyone else’s hoops, we don’t know what we really want. Greg says, it’s not information overload we’re suffering from, its OPINION overload.
The solution he suggests is to listen to our own selves. We need to work out what is essential for us. Politely, but firmly, we then ignore the siren voices that tell us that doing this will make us happy, and trying that will bring us fulfilment.
As I thought about this, it struck me that there was a lot of sense in what Greg was saying. But maybe he was missing two things.
First, Christians believe we were created by God to know him and love him. The most important voice for us to listen to is God’s. We believe that God wants the best for us and will guide us into what is good and true.
So we are to ask, ‘What is essential for me?’ But instead of simply analysing that for ourselves, we make that question a prayer. We invite God to help us discern what are the few things that really matter for each one of us.
Second, I suspect that for many of Greg’s readers he fails to address the really hard thing. Yes it can be difficult to work out what is essential. Yet for most of us, what’s almost impossible is to choose it. Where do we find the courage to ignore the opinion of friends? Where do we get the determination to choose not to do good things so we can concentrate on what is essential?
For Christians there is a ready answer. It is Jesus Christ, living in us, who helps us. It is he who gives us courage to do what we know should be done. It is he who gives us determination to let go of lesser things so we can concentrate on what really matters.
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