Thursday, March 19, 2009

Good relationships take time

I admire people who have close and deep relationships with others (I'm thinking here of relationships outside of the immediate family). Kristin and I struggle with this; part of the problem is moving to a different part of the country every few years, but for me at least, there's something more inherent.

The following excerpt from an interview with Christian counselor and author, David Powlison, illuminates a common reason for failing to build deep friend relationships--one that I'm guilty of. Surprisingly, it revolves around how he thinks of making effective use of time. He exposes a tension between "efficient time management" and developing good relationships.

David, what single bit of counsel has made the most significant difference in your effective use of time?

I’ll give a bit fuller answer here, as I think my response is likely a bit unusual. I’ve had to learn how I work best, and it’s not the cultural ideal of tightly scheduled efficiency. For me, effective and productive often operate in ways that seem quite “inefficient.” I’m more “third-world” in my use of time: event-oriented and person-oriented, rather than time-conscious and to-do-list-conscious. I operate with an inner gyroscope tuned to whether or not any particular experience or interaction is complete – not to how long it takes or whether it fits the schedule. I’m attuned to whether or not any particular thought is actually finished thinking, rather than whether the product is done on time. So I tend to take the time it takes to get something right—whether that “something” is the close attentiveness of getting fully engaged in this conversation of consequence, or how to craft this sentence and paragraph, or whether I’m stopping and actually noticing the hawk flying overhead right now.

My way of working—of living—means that I’m not very “efficient” in my use of time because I tend to take the time. I am the world’s worst when it comes to multi-tasking and to checking off to-do list items. It can be a fault for which I must repent; it’s my greatest strength, because I’m fully engaged.

I admire people who seem able to use every moment productively. But I’ve found that I simply do not work well that way. A certain kind of “wasting time” has proven to be absolutely essential to my fruitfulness. (I’m not recommending my way to others, but simply describing what I’ve learned about how I work. Perhaps some readers also work this way, and can find freedom from trying to live up to an ideal—the so-called “Protestant ethic”—that ill suits how God has made them to function.)

Our dominant cultural ideal is that of the busy, efficient executive who is always on task and getting projects done. But that doesn’t fit the neighborly housewife who takes time for relationships and helping in the need of the moment, or the artist who takes the time for trial and error and experimentation, crafting and recrafting. I operate more like a neighbor and artist than like an executive.

I take comfort in the oddity of Jesus’ example of time management. He was certainly on task, but his way of going about his calling was to wander around and interact with whoever he happened to run into that day. He engaged whatever happened to be going on in those people’s lives right then. He took “little” people just as seriously as “big” people, and gave himself to both. His work life was more like Francis of Assisi than like a life structured around the Blackberry, strategic plan, project list, and meeting schedule. God’s kingdom embraces and uses many kinds of people, and we don’t all operate the same way.

He goes on to give a great example from his life. The interview was conducted by pastor C.J. Mahaney and is available in full here.

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