The pandemic taught me a new measure of time, writes Jen Pollock Michel
Every Christmas Eve my children look forward to my purple plum torte. Along with roasted turkey and Walter C. Scott’s A Christmas Carol, the simple yellow cake crowned with plums and sprinkled in cinnamon sugar is tradition. Every year the challenge remains the same – in December plums are not grown in northern climes.
December plums illustrate what I learned in the global shutdown of 2020 about the difference between productivity and fruitfulness. Before the pandemic I held to unyielding expectations of my productivity. I wanted plums year-round, and believed I could find them with hard work and time savvy. But when forced inside and threatened by crisis, I was not as productive as I’d once been despite my efforts. Pandemic time slowed. It mocked ambition. I began to learn plums could be flown from Spain in December – but they couldn’t be harvested from frozen ground.
In 2020 I understood in new ways that time was not mine to control, productivity not mine to guarantee. I began glimpsing why the Bible insists on organic metaphors of vines and branches, fruit and trees to figure the flourishing human life under the reign of God.
Fruitfulness, in God’s economy, wasn’t the same thing as year-round plums.
For three decades I’ve read the bestselling timemanagement books. This compulsion – to turn time into material output – is owed partly to temperament. I’m a Type A achiever. Personality hasn’t been the only source of my time compulsivity however. Along with many modern Christians, I’ve also interpreted the spiritual imperative to "redeem the time" as a command to make use of every minute.
If I was getting things done for the Kingdom, taking seriously my stewardship of hours and days, wouldn’t I want to work faster and more efficiently? For decades time management was baptized as an unqualified Kingdom good. As the mother of five, a writer and church volunteer, I valued systems of organization, task management, prioritization, and I baptized these systems as good, never questioning some of the darker assumptions related to time management. I did not question the assumptions that time was something to harness and control – and that I was time’s master.
I did not question the assumptions that time was something to harness and control – and that I was time’s master.
Time (and its scarcity) has become a real cultural obsession. Beginning with stopwatches in factories in the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor – father of scientific management – advocated timing workers in how quickly they completed tasks. Others like Frank and Lillian Gilbreth developed time-and-motion studies, photographing workers to analyze the microgestures of movement. The goal was always efficiency and greater productivity. Greater productivity, people thought, was the hope of democracy.
Early 20th-century economists certainly predicted a utopian future. We would work less and produce more – excess leisure the new human crisis. But productivity has not delivered us to the Promised Land. In fact, what seems increasingly self-evident is the way the demands of productivity have assumed a mechanized view of the human person. From the Amazon employee to the modern gig worker, today we are expected to work like machines, turning less and less time into more and more profit.
If there is anything the pandemic taught us, it’s that the human body does not work like a machine. Sickness slows us, fear paralyzes us, grief hollows us, boredom distracts us. Try as we might we can’t summon our own vigour at will. Our bodies are limited, our time contingent. Pandemic time gave many of us a taste of what disability scholars call "crip time," a shorthand way to describe the hours and days lived by differently abled people generally out of sync with clock time. (See Ellen Samuels, "Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time," Disability Studies Quarterly, summer 2017.)
Pandemic time gave me reasons to suspect time management’s inhuman ideals of relentless productivity – and embrace the Bible’s saner vision of seasonal fruitfulness.
"I am the vine, you are the branches," Jesus told His disciples on their final night together before His arrest and crucifixion (John 15:1). Likely those 12 men had horticultural knowledge we lack. The disciples probably understood that for three years after a vine is planted fruit must not be allowed to grow. Those early years are needed for deepening the plant’s roots if it is to survive future winters.
The disciples probably also understood vines required not just water, but drought. Too much water weakens the root systems by keeping them shallow. Jesus’ followers would have embraced the necessary violence involved in pruning healthy branches to produce greater harvests.
These disciples would have trusted in the seasonality of fruit bearing. They would never have believed grapes (or plums) could be produced year-round.
There are many lessons to be taken from Jesus as vine, His followers as branches, this picture which displaces modern ideals of constant productivity. For one, fruit is produced not by the kinds of heroic, individualist efforts goaded by the time-management gurus, but by abiding. By resting, remaining, enduring and persevering in the one whose Spirit generates the fruit of His abundant life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Galatians 5:22).
There are many lessons to be taken from Jesus as vine, His followers as branches, this picture which displaces modern ideals of constant productivity.
A branch can’t decide for fruit, as time-management experts say who insist on our powers to subdue time and wrestle its output. A branch must simply stay connected to the vine that knows when to reach for the sky, when to burrow in the dark. The vine keeps time – and the branch keeps time with it.
A vine’s health is dependent on all kinds of favourable conditions – rainfall and temperate weather, plentiful sunshine and fertile soil. These conditions, of course, change from season to season, illustrating why fruitfulness is far different from productivity.
In productivity culture every minute is standardized, valued for the muscles it flexes. If we’re getting things done, we grow self-congratulatory. There is never time to waste because the clock is always ticking.
But a vision of health and human flourishing that admits winter’s dormancy, that grants God’s invisible work – in seasons of grief, depression, sickness, emotional exhaustion – allows for more patient time. Fruitfulness expands a vision of unhurried, unworried time that takes seriously the gentle invitation of Jesus to "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," (Matthew 11:28). It reminds us that though we see no visible fruit now, it’s being prepared.
The promise of fruit is sure – because plums glorify the Father (see John 15:8).
I had no vision for seasonal fruitfulness in my younger adult years. I did not rest when my father collapsed and unexpectedly died when I was a first-year university student. I flew home for a week, then returned to my syllabi, disappearing in the library to study harder. I never got better marks than I did that term of swift and sudden loss.
But the pandemic taught me something about being human – being limited, contingent, frail.
Neither did I rest when my brother committed suicide four years later. I was a newly hired high school teacher – and anxious to secure a more permanent position. I said yes to every administrative demand, even if it meant a throbbing headache most nights. Plums were on order and I had to produce them. I believed God expected me to get things done, no matter the weather.
But the pandemic taught me something about being human – being limited, contingent, frail. Did every minute, every season count for material production? Or had I been malformed by all those time-management books? Could I admit time was not simply a resource to manage, but a gift to receive? Could I receive even the harsh beauty of winter when waiting seems our only task?
In the summer of 2021, I realized my mother was suffering cognitive decline and that, after 11 years in Toronto we needed to return to the States to care for her. Having lived the pandemic’s disruption of time, I was prepared to do something I would have previously thought unthinkable as we made the difficult transition.
I quit some things.
I took a leave of absence from graduate school. I refused writing assignments. I gave up volunteer responsibilities. I told people I needed help – and when they offered it, took it without apology. I finally admitted the "when" of my life, as James K. A. Smith describes in How to Inhabit Time, and it was a severe mercy.
Living close to my mother now, who has been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I’m realizing how much more I must cultivate the value of fruitfulness over productivity. This new work, as my spiritual director has recently called it, does not afford me any illusions of productivity. In my mother’s case I can’t solve a problem permanently. There is only constant improvisation.
As her memory grows frail, there is never work that is once and done, but only effort that is rinse and repeat. It reminds me of an earlier season of my life when I was a young mother and had lots of children underfoot. In that season too I didn’t have much to show for a "productive" day – but that wasn’t the point.
Because love, a fruit of the Spirit, is more than to-dos.
Am I choosing busy? Or is busy choosing me?
What are life-giving ways I can cultivate connection to God?
What distractions must I renounce?
What limits to my time and energy should I realistically acknowledge?
What faithful work can I persevere in?
What rhythms of rest are non-negotiable?
In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker, 2022). After 11 years in Toronto, she now lives in Cincinnati where she continues as host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast. Green plant illustration from Shutterstock.com.
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