Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least. – Goethe
While I often refer to this quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as one of my favorites, it is also personally convicting. For me, the struggle doesn’t necessarily lie in doing things that matter, but in determining what it is that matters most.
Last night I went fishing at a local river. I like to go in the evening, as the sun begins to set and daylight turns to darkness. In order to avoid disappointment, my expectations for catching fish is very low (last night, I met my expectations). For me, the point isn’t to be a successful angler but to escape the city and enjoy the quiet. Most of my time fishing is an opportunity for me to find peace. But, last evening as I sat on the riverbank, instead of peace, the quiet brought anxiety, doubt, and discouragement.
I began thinking about the way I have been spending my time. Of course, the recent pandemic has had a dramatic impact on all of us — myself included. Like many of my colleagues, the school closure has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of hours I am working (as well as my amount “screen” time and level of digital connection). But as I pondered the past few weeks, I realized that in many ways it has not been dramatically different than how I have spent the past twenty years. I have invested a tremendous amount of energy and time in my career as an educator.
I am hopeful that a lot of good has come from that investment, but I also fear that I have sacrificed things that I will struggle to recover: focused time with my wife and daughter, connections and conversations with friends and family, and attention to personal health (mental, physical, and spiritual). I am guilty of falling into the trap of thinking I will get to those things when “I have more time.” Even when I am not working, I frequently hear that nagging little voice in the back of my head asking me why I am not responding to email, working on a project, or addressing some ill-defined impending crisis. I have justified these sacrifices by convincing myself that the work I am doing matters — that it makes a difference.
I think Goethe chose his words carefully. Notice that he doesn’t describe a choice between things that matter and things that are trivial. That would be easy. We all understand that we probably shouldn’t sacrifice time with our child to binge-watch a show on Netflix. Goethe acknowledges the fact that we have many things in our life that matter. Our challenge is keeping those things that matter most at the forefront. Sometimes the work we do may matter most — but certainly, this is not always the case.
As I packed up my fishing gear last night, here was my take-away. I have to set aside time on a regular basis to evaluate my choices and habits — making sure they align with what matters most. I need a more holistic approach to my work. One that allows me to evaluate what I have accomplished based on my personal values about what is important in life. I have to take time for reflection. This week, Eugene Cho tweeted these daily reflection questions, written by Henri Nouwen — they resonated.
Did I offer peace today?
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?
Did I say words of healing?
Did I let go of my anger and resentment?
Did I forgive?
Did I love?
These are the real questions.
The day will come when my job as a principal will end. My goal in life is not to be a great administrator. My aspiration is that I will be seen as a person of integrity and kindness; a loving father and husband; a good son, brother, and friend; and someone who has modeled the love, empathy, and care of my Savior for others. I hope I will be, and be seen as, a person who focused on what matters most.
The road is long. I still have a great distance to travel.