“Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.”
“When it comes to religion today, we tend to be long on butterflies and short on cocoons. Somehow we’re going to have to relearn that the deep things of God don’t come suddenly.”
~~Sue Monk Kidd
“There’s an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth.”
~~Ecclesiastes 3: 1 (The Message)
“In every heart there is a coward and a procrastinator.
In every heart there is a god of flowers, just waiting
to come out of its cloud and lift its wings.”
“There is an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth,” according to Ecclesiastes. Does “a right time for everything” include procrastination?
We hear people being accused of procrastinating. We say of ourselves, “I procrastinated” or of others, “They procrastinate.” In most of our uses, procrastination holds negative meaning and is undesirable.
Is procrastination always negative? Can it teach us something important? Are there times when we call something procrastination, meaning its negative, when in fact, it is not? Can “procrastination” hold positive meaning and significance? This article explores these questions thinking about the light and shadow side of procrastination.
Procrastination might not always be what it seems. To see procrastination as undesirable, especially in the initial stages of an endeavor is to say that Jacob was procrastinating by wrestling with his angel; Job was procrastinating by holding to his struggle or Jesus was procrastinating as he waited in the garden. Do we believe that a woman feeling her first birth pains should simply get on with it; that a bud should be broken open to reveal the full glory of the flower or that we do not have time for the chrysalises, only butterflies?
What looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; our high anxiety; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavor to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in some way to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works in its very own gifted time. Its revelation or meaning only emerges when the qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our necessarily struggling hearts and imaginations.
From a systems lens, two indicators of high anxiety in a congregation are either quick, knee-jerk reactive decisions or delayed decision-making and indecisiveness. Both are indicators of high anxiety. When leaders gather the data, imagine, have the honest conversations, listen deeply, explore, pray, process and digest the impact individually and collectively, to make the decision is wise. On the basis of these indicators of high anxiety in a system, when it takes time and something within the leader is holding back from choosing, some might call the delay the result of an anxious system or procrastination, and at times it might be. At other times, it might be that more time is needed or the right time has not emerged.
Not all delay is procrastination or at least, negative procrastination. Some delay is wisdom. Though the bud is present, there is a season in which the flower blooms; the woman feeling the initial pains, knows that more time is needed before giving birth; the courageous conversation that happens, like a fine wine, she/he knows needs time to breathe or aerate, the chrysalis needs time before the struggle of the butterfly, and Jesus in the garden waits for the time to dawn that is on the horizon. What appears by some to be procrastination or the impact of high anxiety can be a positive, wise spiritual practice. As the poet Mark Nepo writes:
And not choosing is a choice. Acquiescence
is different from patience or surrender.
All this leaves us needing to know:
Whether to better the song through practice
or to better ourselves through singing.
Any creative frontier is by its nature a conversation frontier. It is a meeting of the inner and the outer worlds we inhabit. It is a knitting together, a growing together, a surprising arrival with its own unknown unfolding caught within it as part of its own genius. While things at the surface move fast, needing to be gathered, deeper things from the center or soul move slowly, needing to be perceived. Thus, time is a friend and pause a spiritual practice.
Procrastination when studied closely can be a beautiful thing, a parallel with patience, a companionable friend, a revealer of the true pattern already caught within us. The delay might be acknowledging for instance that before a book or poem can be written and most invisible forms of creative art become visible, the ways it cannot be written or created must be tried first in our minds, on the blank screen, over the white canvases, on the empty page or while staring at the bedroom ceiling at three o’clock in the morning.
Wise risks are part of the journey. The journey is not achieved without delay, wrong turns, blank walls, scratches on the canvas and a vein of self-doubt running through it all, leading eventually to some degree of heartbreak, a thing of the moment, a bagatelle, and often neither of use nor ornament. It might be scanned for a moment and put aside. What is worthwhile carries the struggle of the maker written, created, painted, germinated within her/him/them, but wrought into the shape of an earned, grounded understanding and wisdom. Sometimes Jacob wrestling with the angel in the night is an accurate, descriptive image.
Procrastination can help us to be a student of our own resistance and reluctance. It can help us to understand the hidden darker side of the first enthusiastic idea; to learn what we are afraid of on the journey. It helps us to put an underbelly into our work or ministry itself. Thus what we are and do becomes a living, soulful, satisfying whole, not a surface trying to manipulate us in the moment.
Procrastination does not stop a project or person from coming to fruition. What stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not found the heart of the reason we are delaying, not letting the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the path ahead. To procrastinate can mean that we are involved with larger entities than our own ideas that we refuse to settle for an early underachieving outcome. As Jacob wrestling with the Other, Job sitting on the ash heap, or Jesus waits in the garden, the drama unfolds and the time (kairos) emerges. They and we see that many and great are the invisible forces that shape and form us, many of which are beyond our control. As the poet Rainer M. Rilke writes, “Winning does not tempt that man (person). This is how he (she) grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Perhaps an “opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth” includes procrastination, at least sometimes.
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation.
Exercise: Think of a time when you felt you were procrastinating—
- What can you learn from the experience about yourself, others, the situation and God?
- Can you name one positive experience that resulted from waiting?
- Where was the time and season in your configuration of procrastination?
- What was/is the struggle in your heart and imagination really about?
- What does your procrastination suggest might be germinating in your soul?
- Is there a companion, counselor or spiritual director to whom it would be helpful for you to speak as you look for clarity, to learn, to deepen and to grow?
- What parallel process(s) do you perceive in your life?
- Where was God, whose middle name is Surprise, in the situation you identify?
“We cannot change the world by a new plan project or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center.”
“Work of seeing is done.
Now practice heart-work. . .”
~~Rainer M. Rilke