William Pitt and the Idol of Productivity

Do you ever have unproductive days? Days when you feel like you haven’t accomplished anything worthwhile?

I do, and they frustrate me. At the end of every day I want to have something tangible to point at and to be able to say “I did that!” I want to feel useful and important to God and to my world. I demand that not only days count, but that hours and even minutes count, too. These moments must be full, and I must be constantly producing something I (or, perhaps more importantly, others) deem valuable. When I fail in this (whether from personal laxity or some external circumstance), I feel worthless and unimportant.

A few months ago, while enjoying David Starkey’s series Monarchy on YouTube, Cassandra and I heard something that caught our attention. Of the many stories and anecdotes that bubbled to the surface in this whirlpool of a documentary about British history, the story of William Pitt (1708-1778) stood out to us.

Pitt was a brilliant man who, according to Starkey, suffered from severe bouts of depression (or “madness”), leaving him totally incapacitated for months at a time. When he was in control of his faculties, his work as a member of parliament was constantly hindered. He was hated by his sovereign, King George II, who used his power of veto to leave Pitt virtually powerless in parliament for an entire decade. It wasn’t until the Seven Years’ War got off to a terrible start that public opinion forced King George to appoint Pitt as Secretary of State and turn over the management of the war to him.

Pitt’s moment had come, and he seized it. His vision for a British Empire that extended far beyond the continent, and his confidence in the power of a world-class navy to build this empire, led Pitt and his country to victory in what Winston Churchill would later call “the first World War.”

William Pitt, the Elder, detail of a painting from the studio of W. Hoare, 1754; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

William Pitt, the Elder, detail of a painting from the studio of W. Hoare, 1754; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

As Pitt’s story drew to a close on the screen, Cassandra turned to me and said, “Isn’t it interesting how we feel that every day needs to be a success? Look how long Pitt had to wait, and see what he accomplished.”

When I think about Pitt’s life, I can’t help but see the months of sickness and the decade of what Starkey calls “limbo” as time wasted. I feel pity, rather than respect, for this man whose desires were so continuously frustrated by forces beyond his control. He was incapacitated. He was “unproductive.”

And yet, paradoxically, he became one of the defining figures in the formation of Britain as a nation.

Recently, as I shared Pitt’s story with my friend Allen, he looked at me and said, “sounds like Moses.” He was right. Moses spent 40 years in Midian before his moment arrived. By that point, he was unsure as to whether or not his family in Egypt still lived. God told him that his enemies had died by then (Exodus 4:18-19). It had been a long time. Forty years, and we know very little about what Moses did during those years. He took a wife, had a son, and shepherded sheep. For forty years. And then God called Him to lead His people out of bondage and into the promised land.

The Bible is full of stories of men who waited a very long time for God to give the “go ahead”. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus began his ministry at the age of 30.

And we need to be best-selling authors and successful entrepreneurs before we leave college.

Of course, Pitt did not “waste” his time during that long decade in parliament. When he had the physical and mental strength to do it, he plodded steadily onward, slowly building the momentum that would lift him to eventual power. Moses was not lazy in Midian. God gave him a family, and he served his father-in-law as a shepherd. The Lord Jesus Christ was growing “in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). We are not called to twiddle our thumbs. That would not be faithful waiting at all. I think of the pruning and coaxing of the keeper of the vineyard and orchard, training trees and vines to grow in the right ways over months and years. We are often called to this kind of activity.

But the accompanying point is that we cannot make the setting of personal goals for productivity the governing influence over the way we think about our lives and our usefulness for the kingdom. Many times God makes productivity impossible for us, sending disease or injury, for example. At other times, He arranges our circumstances in such a way as to frustrate our every move, causing us to realize that it is He, and not us, who moves, who works, who accomplishes.

Perhaps William Pitt and Moses have little else in common, but both stories point to an important truth for my life today. I may count days as worthless, but that is a problem with my own lack of patience, my own discontent, not with God’s provision. It is also true that I (and many others) are likely not destined to achieve things at the same level of importance to the same number of people as Pitt or Moses. I may not be destined to do those things that the world deems “great”. I do not know. That part of my story is known only to its writer.

But I do know that God’s timing is what counts. And it is His definition of “productive” that matters, not mine. Like Pitt and like Moses, we may go months or even years, wandering and wondering, waiting and watching, before God deems it to be our time. I suppose the question to be left with is whether or not we, like Pitt, Moses and our Lord Jesus, will be ready when our time comes.

Birding

At some point in my adolescence, I decided to make a stand against science. It had nothing to do with my distaste for the school subject, but was, rather, a matter of principle. As my father and I walked along the fence that separated our land from our neighbor’s field, I told Dad that I could never enjoy a tree or a rock formation more for knowing how it came to be, and that that knowledge would destroy the poetry of the object. Much better, I thought, to enjoy the entire canvas at once than to be nit-picky about its individual elements.

I put it less eloquently back then, but that was the idea. I do not remember how Dad responded; It is possible that he employed his default response to foolishness: his signature smirk. But he didn’t need to speak. I knew all about his passion for natural science, and his love for nature.

I hadn’t given this little exchange much thought over the years until a recent encounter with birds brought it all back to me. Jane and I joined friends for an outing to a beach an hour or so out of town. I had decided this time to bring my binoculars with me (a present from my father), and was rewarded by a very unexpected sight.

Passing through a fishing village, the paved road gave way to a dirt path through cattle fields, with the mighty Pacific Ocean stretching out on our right. Between us and the ocean, pools and rivulets punctuated the fields, and in one of these inlets, far enough from us to be barely visible, stood a flock of flamingos.

Once our little troop had established ourselves on the beach, I walked through the tangled brush to the edge of the inlet and watched the birds, whimsical yet elegant in their rose plumage. I had never seen a flamingo in the wild. These, I learned later, were most likely Phoenicopterus chilensis (Chilean Flamingo). Fascinated, it was difficult to leave them.

The experience piqued my curiosity. What other birds have escaped my notice? My daily ten-minute walk to the mission office became a daily scavenger hunt, searching the lawns and the trees along my path for birds.

What I discovered surprised me. There was the chipper vermilion flycatcher, with his pert black crest and brilliant red vest, darting from tree branch to power line in its quest for food. Also the cheerful saffron finch, a bright yellow bird with an orange cap, which I learned is never kept in captivity because it languishes when confined (languish is such an underused word, isn’t it?).

Other birds leaped out of the shadows. I began to look for the parrots which for years I have heard squawking overhead as their large flocks traversed the city. One morning, I had my chance as I followed the ruckus to a dusty tree in an alleyway. There must have been several of the birds nearby (their calls were loud and close), but I could see only one of them, a small green parrot perched on an outlying branch, using its beak to perform acrobatics in that curious twisty fashion unique to parrots. I made mental notes of his coloring, shape, and size and later looked him up on the Internet, where I learned he was most likely a Brotogeris cyanoptera (Cobalt-winged Parakeet). As I stood there, my neck craned, I wondered which was more of a spectacle to other passersby: me or the bird. But I didn’t care. The parakeet was a work of art and a delight.

But what is the point of all of this? What is the value? Part of me wishes to revert to my adolescent self, questioning the value of study and observation. There are more important things to attend to, after all.

But perhaps the point really isn’t about the birds at all. Perhaps this all has more to do with my inattention to the world in which God has placed me, my persnickety habit of choosing for myself what is important, and ignoring the periphery. The problem with this attitude is that it robs me of wonder, and I do wonder if my father, all those years ago, could see that in me even then.

You see, my father knew about wonder. He had an intense curiosity about the natural world, from tree bark to birds to asteroids. And it was that wonder that opened up to him an entire realm of possibility that I tend to be blind to. This is the possibility of discovery, the possibility that something new and exciting might be as nearby as the park across the avenue, the possibility that the people beneath our notice might be just the people who need us, and whom we need in return.

It makes me wonder what other “birds” I have overlooked because they did not (sometimes very conveniently) make my list of priorities. Missionaries struggle with this like anyone, no matter how “exotic” our surroundings may seem. We get in ruts, we put on blinders, we close up because we know best. All along, however, my father was right. Attention to all things, an openness of spirit and hunger of mind, can lead to the most marvelous discoveries. And those discoveries are truly the stuff of life.

(This post is by Caleb)