I’m both a person with multiple disabilities, and a good worker. The problem with holding those two concepts in tension is my distinct lack of efficiency. I can do the things I’m skilled at regularly – in church contexts, I can pray, preach, receive and count offering, sing, and not only assist in but help to celebrate the Eucharist – but, when I do them, all those tasks are slower and more deliberate than they would be when done by able-bodied people. Moreover, all those tasks may have small pieces missing. Rather than truncate a task to fit into time and space, I ask myself how I can perform an action as authentically as possible. That authentic performance means that I’m passionate, but not always productive. In what follows, I’ll think through aspects of the “myth of productivity” relative to Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha, and I’ll strive to point to a couple of my own areas of learning and growth, in terms of that productivity, for believers of diverse abilities.
In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus and his friends are staying at the home of Mary and Martha, a short walk from Jerusalem. Mary and Martha present very different faces to the world. The story may be familiar to us: because she has a guest in her house – not to mention a renowned itinerant healer and teacher like Jesus! – Martha runs around trying to make certain that every I is crossed, and every T dotted (Luke 10:40). The Lord is near, so everything must be perfect. By contrast, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and takes in his every word (10:39). Because the text indicates that Mary’s more carefree than Martha, I like to think of Mary as a younger sister.
This contrast in the two sisters’ approach to Jesus creates friction in their household. While Mary absorbs Jesus’ teachings, Martha is “distracted by her many tasks.” She has so much to do, and no time to focus on her inner life! Martha feels compelled to complain to Jesus, ““Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her, then, to help me” (both 10:40, NRSV). We might say: Master, don’t you care that I’m over here, doing everything I can to make sure you have a pleasant stay, while my sister is sitting around listening to you talk? Martha’s sarcastic tone is practically audible in that verse.
Read carefully Jesus’ response. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things, but few things are needed—indeed, only one. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). I want to be clear that Jesus is not advocating here for laziness, or for a passive approach to life that absolves people from doing necessary work. Rather, Jesus is pointing Martha away from her busy life – away from her attachment to time, to status, to things – and towards the inner life, a life of contemplation that her sister has embraced.
Let’s look at that from our own cultural perspective. Our lives here in the early twenty-first century are a lot like Martha’s. Our society is, or can be, hyperactive, frenetic, addicted to constant stimulation and endless novelty, and oriented towards practical outward-facing results. Job postings ask potential candidates to perform dozens of interconnected tasks, and maybe even brew a strong cup of coffee on the side. People often need to work multiple jobs, and bring the same professionalism to each one, in order to “make ends meet” – to make a decent living. Even more, our lives are saturated with advertisements that will help us to work smarter, not harder; get rich quickly; save enough for retirement; and maybe even go on nice vacations.
None of these desires are bad, in themselves; everyone wants to work hard, play hard, enjoy the places where we live, and be able to relax and socialize with our families and friends. That said, can people with disabilities afford to do all these things? I’m not sure; I feel like the productive lifestyle to which we’re acculturated is a myth. Canadian researchers tell us that folks with disabilities live closer to the poverty line than do people of able body. Plus, I experience chronic pain and spatial disorientation every day. I know that I want to be productive – to work as hard as I can, and to have a good life – but some nights, I struggle to sleep because of anxiety, and some days, I simply don’t want to get out of bed! (In fact, the depression and anxiety that accompany my other disabilities need their own blog post.) I strive to be like Mary – to hear the inner voice that directs me towards righteousness – while part of me longs to be like Martha, and to experience fulfillment in constant busy-ness. So, this tension can be very confusing!
In light of that tension, I want to point to a couple moments of learning that have aided me along my own journey. Both of them involve Mary’s perspective. The first, one of the most critical things I’ve learned as a believer with disabilities, is to create space for contemplation – as Catholic theologian Paul J. Wadell says, to learn to see the world with kindness. I make space for silence for a few minutes every morning and every evening, often with a cup of tea. Similarly, rather than being “distracted by [our] many tasks,” as Martha is in Luke 10:40-41, perhaps Jesus’ friends can slow down, to glimpse the world’s potential rather than its deficits.
The second, and subsequent, learning, again drawn from Mary’s encounter with Jesus, is that I work best when I do one thing at a time. Multitasking is one of the skills that everyone attempts to cultivate in this super-busy culture, but there are varied reports of its success: some scholars think it helps human beings to be productive workers within set limits, while some business-themed studies claim that multitasking erodes productivity. I’ve found that that’s true. I work best when I’m focused on one detail, rather than many, in my written work, in my relationships, and in every part of my life. When I can create the conditions to do one thing at a time, I can live into my verbal and relational strengths, and offer more of myself to projects and to the people I love. Thus, in the same way as contemplation can allow people of diverse abilities to see the world kindly, I think that slowing down in order to be truly present and to do one thing at a time – choosing to write an email, throw a Frisbee, eat a plate of nachos, or watch Al Pacino chew the scenery in Scent of a Woman – is essential to our fruitful witness.
I feel like people with disabilities will be much more at home in our churches if we can live more fully into the tension between contemplation and constant busy-ness. If Christians can be more like Mary, choosing to create contemplative spaces and to do one thing at a time, then the moments where we are like Martha – sometimes orderly and generous, at other times frantic and overly hasty – then our churches can be healthier and happier places. Our churches need to be places where productivity and peace meet, and where our desires for profit and pleasure interact harmoniously with our needs for passion and prophetic change. We – believers with and without disabilities – can strive to integrate the parts of ourselves that resemble Mary with those like Martha, in the ways that I’ve outlined, in order to find a godly balance where we can both live richly and offer our truest selves to our Creator.