We do what we can

Flying over the Congo jungle is a mesmerizing experience. The WWF quotes the rainforest’s size at 500 million acres, which is a larger footprint than the whole of Alaska. All I could see was mile after mile of trees stretching into the distance.

Our group of about eight was in a small Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) plane, visiting places missionaries had established as ‘stations’ in the 1800s. We decided to abandon one planned visit because fighting had broken out nearby. Instead we’d go a day early to another village where there was no trouble. The pilot invited me to sit up front beside him.

We arrived over our new destination, a place no-one had flown into for many months. It was only what some would call ‘a hole in the jungle’ but as well as homes it had a church, a small hospital and a dirt airstrip. The pilot circled the plane several times, studying that airstrip. He was nervous about landing, or, more accurately, about whether we could take off again. Jungle encroaches on airstrips quickly from all sides, and though the pilot had been told the villagers had cut back the forest it didn’t look like they’d cut enough. He could land the plane, but he’d need more space to take off. We might be stuck there for days.

He decided to go for it, and down we went. The landing was bumpy, but no more than usual on dirt, and the plane came to rest at the end of the airstrip where enthusiastic villagers were waiting for us. The engine was switched off.

It was at exactly that moment about thirty men in army uniforms emerged from the jungle. Quickly they encircled our plane with their automatic weapons pointed at us. My front location got a perfect view of a trestle-mounted machine gun aimed right at the cockpit.

There are many militias in Congo, and there was no immediate way to know who these ‘soldiers’ were. Even government troops could be hostile. And these guys were seriously hostile.

A couple of our number got out to speak with them. A few minutes later they told us we must all get out. We clambered from the plane, and were marched at gunpoint towards the village. The people we’d come to see were super-excited, and sang and rushed back and forth in ways that clearly bothered our captors. My fear was that if they upset them too much, those soldiers might start shooting at random. Thankfully, it never came to that.

We got to the village, received a great welcome from village and church leaders and held a short service in the open air with gun wielding soldiers surrounding all of us. We were given food, and visited the hospital which, tragically, was very broken down but still the only facility which could care for people who might have walked for days through the jungle to get help.

At some point, a call of nature had to be answered. There was a toilet a couple of hundred yards away, but I wasn’t allowed to go alone. My soldier escort kept his weapon pointed in my direction even at my most vulnerable moment.

Apparently we’d aroused great suspicion because our changed plan meant we’d arrived on a day when we weren’t authorised. We couldn’t leave unless a commander from over the river permitted it. By late afternoon we were getting perilously near to sunset, and we couldn’t take off in the dark. Our MAF pilot was seriously afraid an overnight stay would result in his plane being stripped of essential components. That wouldn’t be good for the plane and not good for us because then we couldn’t leave at all.

With only half an hour before daylight would end, news arrived that the commander said we could go. ‘We’re leaving now’ said the pilot, with great emphasis on ‘now’. We were inside the plane in five minutes. The engine started, the plane lined up, and we set off down that airstrip at full power. No-one was sure we’d get into the air before we reached the jungle at the far end. The trees seemed to rush towards us. It looked impossible to miss them. Last second, the pilot pulled back on the stick and up we went, skimming the trees. We were airborne! I glanced out the window, and leaves from the jungle were hanging from the wing tips.

That visit was memorable. But, over the years, the suffering of ordinary people in Congo has been far more memorable than finding myself on the wrong end of soldiers’ guns.

What I also learned from that dramatic and life-threatening experience was a hard but important lesson: We are not as much in control of our lives as we think.

I have a passionate dislike of time management and life management books. Not because they lack any wisdom, but because of the core assumptions almost all of them contain: that we are masters of our destiny, and we can reach our goals if only we order our lives rightly.

I have an ethical problem with that, and believe there’s a major flaw in the logic.

My ethical problem is the inherent selfishness. One book praised the boss who had his secretary screen all incoming calls, and promise he’d return them between 4.00 and 5.00 in the afternoon. He wouldn’t call at any other time. That practice was praised as great time management. Yes, great for that boss, but not great for those told they had to make their schedules fit round his if they were to get his attention. I’ve seen similar advice given for answering emails. And I’ve known people willing to meet others only between hours they defined; if you couldn’t meet then, you didn’t meet at all.

Arrogant people must think they can make the world revolve around them. What if we universalized that form of time management, but all chose different times of the day to be available? Interactions would be impossible.

The flaw in much time and life management thinking is this. Let’s liken it to driving a fairground dodgem (bumper) car. And let’s imagine no other cars are on the track or they’re all stationary. Then driving would be easy. But real life isn’t a static dodgem track. It’s a dodgem track full of people driving crazily, right into our path, crashing us from the side and from behind, jarring our bones and almost toppling us over.

The hard reality is that we can’t regiment the world around us. No matter how good we are at strategizing, planning, organizing, life refuses to be ordered or controlled. The messy world we navigate has events and people crashing into us from all angles. None of us on that plane imagined we’d be surrounded by armed soldiers in a clearing in the jungle. No-one has ready-made strategies for extreme events like that, nor for hundreds of parallel though ordinary happenings in our lives.

So, what do we do? We can’t make problems melt away, and not every circumstance can have a happy ending. Therefore we do what we can. We try not to freeze or panic, or to sit down and moan about the unfairness of life. Probably most of us have surrendered to reactions like these sometimes. But nothing good comes that way.

My ‘we do what we can’ philosophy kicked in during the final stages of my theology degree. A large part of my overall mark depended on a 20,000 word dissertation. My future plans for PhD study also rested on that dissertation. But I was getting nowhere. After months of work the project would not come together. Then one day, out of the blue, a whole new angle on the subject flashed into my mind. But following that intuition would mean starting all over again. I described the new idea to Alison, but added, ‘There just isn’t enough time to do that now.’

‘Are you sure? What if you just start and see what you can do?’

She was right. And I did just start. The research went well, and the writing went well. There was a crisis when a friend typing my draft to dissertation standard suddenly went into hospital. But I found another typist, and the dissertation was handed in with two days to spare. It got good marks, and I was admitted to the PhD programme. In this world we don’t sail on a calm sea. We face storms. Some are minor and some major. Some won’t harm us and some threaten everything. In the Congo jungle I wasn’t in control of the outcome. It was a time to trust God and get on with doing what I could, which was spending time with deeply impoverished people. I’ve practised a ‘do everything you can’ approach many times now. It doesn’t make life easy, but it has meant I keep moving forward. And that’s a good thing.

Serious business

As I drove past, I barely noticed the broken down car on the grass verge at the side of the road. Except, something had caught my eye. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said to my wife, Alison. ‘Did you see the sticker on the back of that car?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Why? What did it say?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘But if it’s anything like what I think it was…’ I found the first safe place to U-turn, back we went and pulled up beside the abandoned car.

The very prominent sticker on the rear of the car was what I thought it was. In big bold letters it said: Got a problem? Just try Jesus!

I don’t have any issue with encouraging troubled people to turn to Jesus. It’s the right thing to do when you have problems, and even better to do it before you have problems.

But I do have issues with that way of communicating the message.

The least of my issues was that the sticker was a bad advert in those circumstances. That car looked like it had been broken down for several days. ‘Got a problem? Just try Jesus!’ clearly hadn’t got the car going. If I’d driven past it every day, I’d have been thinking, ‘What Jesus wants you to try now is calling a garage or a rescue service.’

However, I had more significant problems with that car sticker.

A 21st century generation isn’t won over by trite messages. Sloganizing doesn’t impress. I’ve come across sayings like these:

  • Why worry when you can pray
  • Know God, Know Peace; No God, No Peace.
  • Let Go and Let God
  • When down in the mouth, remember Jonah. He came out alright.
  • 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given

I almost like the Jonah saying, but it’s funny and understandable only for people who know their bibles. They, presumably, are not the target audience.

 Some slogans are much more troublesome than my examples.

An associate minister told me that, when he was younger, he used ‘conversation starters’ with university students.

‘What kind of conversation starters?’ I asked.

He listed them. I shuddered. The worst was probably ‘Turn or burn’. The rest were nearly as dreadful and offensive.

‘Who did you say them to?’ I hoped they were people he knew well and who wouldn’t be too upset. I was wrong.

‘I’d go up to students in a bus queue, tap them on the shoulder, and let them have it.’

It’s a wonder they didn’t let him have it. He thought his shoot-from-the-hip approach would get them talking. I suspect what most people said was ‘Go away,’ but with less polite language. When I asked him if he still used that technique sometimes, he said, ‘No, it didn’t work’.

Now there’s a surprise.

Some advertisers still sloganize, but many of the best prefer to tell a story or make people smile. They don’t smack them in the mouth with their message. They want people to think, and use subtlety and humour to achieve that. (Do an internet search for john lewis christmas adverts and you’ll see what I mean.)

In what most call the ‘western world’, there are two disturbing truths. One is that few people believe in God in a deep sense. The second is that many people have never even thought about God in a deep sense. We need to make people think, but slogans won’t do that. What’s easily said is easily dismissed. We can do better.

Slogans aren’t appropriate for serious business. And Christianity is serious business. One of the most important conversations of my life occurred when I was 17. I never expected it, and the way it happened was very odd.

My first year in journalism included study, and a few days of the journalism course were spent with other young reporters at a residential centre. The place was no upmarket conference suite; facilities were basic. I was allocated to share a room with John and Graham. I knew both of them already, including a strange peculiarity of John’s. He liked black. He liked everything around him to be black. His hair was jet black, and his clothes were all black (long before that was anyone else’s fashion choice). He told me how his parents had responded when he wanted black curtains, ‘John you’ve already got black wallpaper and now you want black curtains…?’He got his black curtains. John was a likeable one-off.

Late that evening each of us climbed into our narrow, dormitory-style beds, and John switched off the light. He also liked darkness. But the three of us talked, about lots of things and then one of them mentioned God. John was unmercifully direct: ‘So, what do each of you think about God?’ Graham mumbled something about reaching the age of ten and giving up believing God existed. Then it was my turn.

‘I believe in God…’ I said hesitantly. There was silence. They expected me to say more, but I didn’t have anything more to say. John and Graham had studied journalism with me for several months. They knew me. I’d never mentioned God before, and my lifestyle wasn’t bad but no advert for Christianity.

Then John’s voice came out of the darkness. ‘I respect you believing in God, but what I can’t respect is that you don’t then do anything about it.’

I remember nothing more of what was said that night. But John’s sentence stayed in my mind in bold capitals. ‘…WHAT I CAN’T RESPECT IS THAT YOU DON’T THEN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT.’

When those words were still there next morning, and the one after that, I decided I had to talk to the minister of the church I (sometimes) attended.

But the minister went away to another church.

I went away for seven months to report the news in another city.

What never went away was that sentence spoken in the dark, by the unlikeliest of friends. How could I believe in God but do nothing in response to that?

After my seven month exile I returned, and found there was a new minister at the church. His name was Peter, and he seemed friendly. Almost my first sentence to him was, ‘I need to speak with you about God.’

One day every week after that I met with Peter, and  we talked about what lived-out faith meant. Gradually it made more sense. Late one Thursday night – really late – there was a moment when all my thoughts came together. I knew I had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God. If ‘yes’ my commitment would be everything. If ‘no’ I’d never go back to church. And, in the dark, at 2.40 that morning, my decision was made.

Next day, as soon as work was over, I phoned Peter and said I had to see him as soon as possible. ‘Come now, if you like,’ he replied.

Thirty minutes later I rang Peter’s door bell, was welcomed inside, and I told him what had happened early that morning, and that I’d said ‘yes’. I couldn’t have been more excited. Peter was too. We laughed, we prayed, and from that day on my life changed. A man called John had caused me to find a man called Peter – it sounds so biblical – and now I knew what believing in God had to mean: my life lived for him.

I’ve described that deeply personal story because it illustrates something very significant: Christianity is serious business. We can reject it or accept it. What we can’t do is be complacent or casual about it. We can’t tuck faith away in a corner of our minds, dust it off occasionally, but mostly do nothing about it. It’s far too important for that.

That’s why it’s wrong to tell people to just ‘try Jesus’.

A slogan saying ‘try Levis’ is fine because if you buy jeans and don’t like them you return them to the store or consign them to the ‘rarely used clothes’ shelf in the wardrobe. That’s okay, because jeans are a ‘take it or leave it’ commodity.

God is not a commodity. We can’t try God on for size, and if he doesn’t fit we’ll return him or ignore him. My strange friend John had helped me realise that you can’t really believe in God and do that. Believing in God must mean following God, and that’s a serious business.

A much more serious business than any bumper sticker can communicate.

What should Jim do?

Jim has stumbled into a small South American town, and he has a problem. A squad of government troops has arrested twenty natives, and lined them up against a wall to be shot. The squad captain tells Jim there have been anti-government protests in the region, and the twenty villagers have been chosen at random for execution as a deterrent to protesters. But, the captain says, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another country, he will grant him a guest’s privilege of selecting and shooting one of the natives himself. If Jim accepts, to mark the special occasion the other natives will be set free. If Jim refuses, then there’s no special occasion and all the natives will die. What is Jim to do? He wonders if he could grab a gun and save all of them. But, he’s massively outnumbered, the rescue would fail, and he would die along with the natives. So Jim has a terrible decision to make. The men against the wall and onlookers from the village are all begging him to choose and kill one so the others can live. Should he do that? Kill one and save nineteen? Or do nothing and allow twenty to die?

I’ve sourced that story from Bernard Williams,* a noted philosopher who used this as an argument against ‘utilitarianism’. Utilitarianism’s core idea is about maximising happiness for the greatest number, so an action is right if it’s beneficial for the majority.

The Jim story is not real; it’s a ‘thought experiment’, an imaginative tool to help us work through a complicated moral issue. There are many versions of the story, and others with similar dilemmas, because moral choices are often difficult.

So, if you were Jim, what would you do?

Keep in mind all the natives facing the firing squad want you to choose one of them so the rest will be spared. Their families want that too. Surely it’s best that one dies to save nineteen?

But these men are all innocent. How can you select one, point a gun at him, and pull the trigger? It would be an unlawful killing and you will be the perpetrator. Is it then a crime? Is it a sin? Could you look the man in the eye who’s about to die and believe you’re doing the right thing? Could you live with your conscience afterwards?

The simple utilitarian response would be: ‘Of course you shoot one to save the other nineteen. That results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’ All that matters is the maths. Losing one is better than losing many.

However, that logic can have serious consequences. In 1666, the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the city. In the days immediately after the fire, citizens crazed with anger demanded someone be held accountable.  Mobs roamed the streets, and authorities feared riots would cause many deaths. Suspicion fell on Robert Hubert. The fact that he was a Catholic was not in his favour. Moreover, he confessed, perhaps because of the mob’s pressure. Hubert certainly didn’t start the fire. He couldn’t have because he wasn’t in the country when it began. But, despite his obvious innocence, the jury pronounced him guilty and he was hanged. His death likely saved others from dying at the hands of mobs. But did that justify a wrongful execution?

Hubert’s fate shows the problem when moral judgments are made simply by calculating the number who gain versus the number who lose. It can’t be that simple.

It isn’t that simple. Life isn’t simple. In his poem Marmion, Sir Walter Scott talked about the tangled web we weave, and tangled it is. Here are three real-life situations I know personally.

A couple watched their adult son descend into alcoholism. Some nights they roamed the streets searching for him, occasionally finding him unconscious in a shop doorway. They gave him money to pay his rent, and money to buy food and clothes, but he spent it all on drink. They became desperate to save their son. But the advice those parents were given was to stop helping, because their son had to reach absolute bottom before he’d change. That seemed too hard. The couple believed he’d die before that change would come. What was the the right thing to do?

A younger couple, with no children of their own, fostered a bright ten-year-old girl. Her background was dreadful, but for about four years they were a happy family together. Then it all changed. The fourteen-year-old had joined a bad crowd, begun staying out late and sometimes didn’t come home at all. Her foster-parents knew she was drinking and perhaps taking drugs. They were seriously worried she’d get pregnant. They tried everything to help her change, but it all failed. They couldn’t let her behaviour continue, but alerting social workers would mean their foster-daughter was taken from them into care. What was the right thing to do?

In 1999, Odisha (formerly Orissa) in India was devastated by a cyclone and super-cyclone in rapid succession.** Winds reached 160 mph, and the sea was driven inland to a depth of five to six metres for 20 miles, contaminating the land with salt so nothing would grow. Cattle and goats were destroyed, and up to 30,000 people perished. Soon after the cyclone I visited the area. The people in one of the devastated villages told me how everyone had rushed into the village’s only concrete building. They were so crammed in they had to stand upright in waist high water for three days until the flood subsided. Because they did, most lived. But, unable to plant crops, and with no animals, many would die of hunger in the weeks ahead. A team of young people was with me, and they spoke to as many as they could (with the help of a translator). They met a grandmother clutching a young baby whose parents were lost. Grandmother grabbed the arm of one of our team, and begged, ‘Take the baby with you. She’ll die if she stays here.’ For many reasons the aid worker couldn’t take the baby. Besides, why this baby? There were thousands – tens of thousands – at risk. But yet, she was being asked about this baby who, sadly, would indeed probably die. What was the right thing to do?

Jim’s story and these other stories bring home two truths to me.

Life is messy and difficult. It’s complicated. Over the years I’ve been privileged to listen to many who shared the hidden parts of their lives, things most would never know about them. A disturbing number were told by a parent, ‘I hate you. I wish you’d never been born.’ How does anyone say that to an eight or ten-year-old? It leaves a dreadful legacy. Another legacy lives permanently in those who experienced sexual assault as a child. For others, the secrets were current. Some had health problems that would seriously shorten their lives. Or depression, that robbed every day of colour or joy. Or tension in their marriage that might soon cause it to fail. Or debt from which they could see no escape. Not everyone’s story is dramatic, but everyone has a story which includes hard challenges. When my wife, Alison, studied sociology of health, the lecturer said that most people think everyone else is so much healthier than they are, but they’re not. That’s also true about life. We assume most people are having an easier time than we are, but they’re not. Life is messy and difficult.

Answers are not obvious. I’ve known people with ready-baked solutions for almost everything. They have no uncertainty; there’s only a right way or a wrong way. They’d have instant answers for Jim and everyone else I’ve mentioned, and they’d be certain their answers were right. I can’t share their certainty. I can’t pronounce an obvious right way through wretched problems because often there isn’t an obvious right way. A lot of the time we simply don’t know the right thing to do. Accepting that is an important first step, because a pre-determined, formulaic answer may be entirely unsuited for a complex problem.

Jim faced a wretched dilemma in the South American jungle. Who would want his choice? The author behind the story – Williams – hints at his own answer by suggesting we’re responsible for what we do rather than what others do. That makes sense to me, but I can’t imagine I’d ever feel comfortable with either decision.

I’ll finish, then, with a World War II story in which someone took personal responsibility at great cost. This is a true story, told in Ernest Gordon’s moving book Miracle on the River Kwai.*** Gordon and many other allied POWs were made to work in Thailand on railway construction by their Japanese captors. Their conditions and treatment were brutal and appalling. Yet there were many examples of great heroism among the prisoners.

An Argyll soldier had laboured all day on the railway. He and the rest of his work detail were marched back to camp, tools were laid down and counted by a guard. (There was a suspicion that prisoners might sell tools to local Thais for food.) The guard shouted that one shovel was missing. He screamed with rage, worked himself into an out-of-control fury and shouted that the guilty man must step forward. No-one moved. The guard lost control and shrieked that all would die. He readied his rifle, and pointed it at the first man in the line. Then one prisoner stepped forward. The Argyll stood to attention and quietly said he’d done it. The guard’s rage exploded in extreme violence. He kicked and beat the soldier, but still he stood there. Infuriated, the guard lifted his rifle by the barrel, and crashed it down on the Argyll’s head. The prisoner fell to the ground. He was clearly dead, but the guard continued to pound on his body until too tired to inflict any more retribution.

The other prisoners picked up the Argyll soldier’s body and their tools and returned to their camp. At the guardhouse, the tools were counted again. None were missing. The guard had miscounted. The Argyll had given his life to save his fellow prisoners.

Did that soldier do the right thing? If love for neighbour was that man’s guiding principle, I believe he did. Was it an easy decision? No, I suspect it was very hard. After all, none of the rest of his squad moved. But, on that day and in that situation, the Argyll made a decision he believed in. I try to make decisions I believe in. I suspect that’s all any of us can do.

*Smart, J., & Williams, B. (1973). A critique of utilitarianism. In Utilitarianism: For and Against (pp. 75-150). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511840852.002

**There’s a Wikipedia page about that super-cyclone. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1999_Odisha_cyclone

*** Gordon, E. (1965) Miracle on the River Kwai, Fontana, London.


I’m a procrastinator. There, I’ve said it. I’ve been meaning to do that for a long time.

That last sentence is a joke, but not the first sentence. Apparently I was born on my due date, but it’s been downhill ever since in respect of getting things done in good time. Homework for school was always last minute. I needed ‘extensions’ for most of my university essay assignments. Preparing sermons involved stealing hours of sleep the night before the preaching date. It was the same when I wrote books. Editors gave me final deadlines so I would submit the work. I coined the phrase, ‘A deadline is the mother of motivation’ because nothing else got me going.

Not everyone procrastinates, but the procrastination club does have a lot of members. And those members ‘never quite get round to doing…’ everything from buying groceries or returning a phone call, to making life-significant decisions like changing careers or proposing marriage. For some, it’s not just procrastination about proposing marriage but procrastination about getting married. I worked beside a woman who’d been engaged for twenty five years, and she and her fiancé still hadn’t fixed a wedding date.

Procrastination is not laziness. The lazy person can’t be bothered to get off their couch, but the procrastinator could be energetic and active about many things, just not the right things, not the things that should be done. They’re postponed until…? Well, procrastinators prefer never to answer the ‘when’ question.

Nor is procrastination necessarily indecision. Often the procrastinator knows exactly what to do but just doesn’t get round to doing it. It’s inaction as much as indecision.

Why procrastinate?

Here are reasons that have sometimes applied to me.

I procrastinate when I’m not sure what to do or how to do it    There’s a warning light showing on the dashboard of my car. It’s not obvious what that light signifies, and the car is running fine. So I’ll do nothing and see if the light goes off. I should cut our tall hedge lower, but should it be down to six feet, seven feet, or compromise at six and a half feet? I’ll have to think about that… So far, that’s been for about a year. This kind of procrastination is compounded either when I have to choose between several options or when a decision can be delayed, because then it will be delayed.

I procrastinate when I’ve so many things to do I don’t know which to do first    I could prepare the talk I have to give next week. I could read the book I’m committed to study. I could walk the dogs. I could hang the pictures that have rested on the floor against the wall for ages. I could finish repairing the liner on the garden pond. Or I could do any of another twenty things. The multiplicity of tasks is a fog I can’t see through to what matters most. So, instead, I’ll go and play golf. A casual game of golf is neither urgent nor important, but a lot more pleasant than dealing with the things which are. Procrastination loves diversion to unimportant alternatives.

I procrastinate when I don’t want to do a hard thing    I don’t actually want to cut the hedge. It’s not an easy or fun job, so inability to decide on its height justifies delay. If I would be fined if I hadn’t started cutting my hedge by 12 noon, I’d say, ‘Okay, it’ll be 6 feet 6 inches’ and get the hedge trimmer out. But with no looming fine, I put off the work. Which is what I do with many ‘not easy and not fun’ things. One day I’ll probably have to do them, but not this day. Procrastination thrives on hard-to-do stuff.

The let-me-do-everything-now people of this world can’t understand why procrastinators are procrastinators. It’s just not sensible. It’s not rational. But rationality doesn’t have complete command in virtually anyone’s life. Our shortfalls are different, and, in my case, it includes procrastination.

I have no doubt, though, that procrastination is damaging and can be dangerous.

In practical things    My car’s warning light does mean something’s wrong, so perhaps one day the engine will fail or I’ll have an accident. My taller and taller hedge won’t kill anyone, but it is getting progressively harder to cut.

In relational things    At the end of a church service, a delightful older lady asked me if I’d give her a call as she had something she wanted to talk about. It didn’t sound urgent, so I put if off… After two weeks she called me. She was polite but she was mad at me. I’d said I’d call, but hadn’t. She felt unimportant.

In economic things    I was driving from Glasgow to Aberdeen late one night, a journey of nearly three hours. Mid way home – probably around midnight – I became aware of headlights in a field off to the side. Had a car gone off the road? I glanced over. No, the headlights were moving. Then I realised. It was the time of year when farmers cut down their crops, and this farmer was driving his combine harvester up and down his field. ‘Foolish man,’ I thought. ‘He should be in his bed.’ I got home, went to sleep, and woke the next morning to the sound of the wind howling, rain lashing and then hailstones crashing down. What if the farmer hadn’t worked through the night to get his harvest in? He’d have lost it. Delay would have been economically disastrous.

In psychological things    I thought I was bad when my email inbox had 500 messages. Until, that is, I found a colleague had 5000. And then I heard of someone with a crazy number like 50,000. But comforting yourself that you’re not as bad as others is false and cold comfort. I still had 500 emails I’d not actioned, and that weighed on my mind. What had I read and then neglected? What important message had I never even read? A procrastinator lives with constant anxiety that more and more things are mounting up, things that should be done but aren’t done. It’s a heavy burden to carry.

Have I found the answer to procrastination? Certainly not.

But I am better than I once was.

Here are the four key steps to improvement that I’ve taken.

  1. When I don’t know where to start, I start somewhere that matters. In other words, I no longer divert to something easy but unimportant. Instead, I take anything from my must-do list and do that. The result is one thing less on the list, and a feeling of satisfaction that motivates me to take on another must-do item.
  2. When I actually do something I’ve been postponing, I reward myself. The reward can be as small as a coffee and cake moment, or reading a (short) chapter of a novel. I’m celebrating an accomplishment. And the reward motivates me for more accomplishments.
  3. I remember a sentence I read many years ago in a ‘spiritual autobiography’ of the Scottish theologian, William Barclay. He was talking about ‘writer’s block’ for those who prepare sermons or academic papers. I won’t get Barclay’s words exactly right, but it was as snappy as ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. Just sit down and start. That advice has helped me many times.
  4. I came up with a phrase of my own, and have used it to challenge congregations or audiences to actually make the changes in their lives they’ve always said they would. My phrase is: ‘Today is yesterday’s tomorrow’. Some promised yesterday that they’d lose weight. Some resolved to repaint a room. Some decided to get up earlier and exercise. All of them promised to start tomorrow. But they didn’t. All they did was invent new tomorrows. So I challenge them: today is the tomorrow you promised yesterday. This is the time – perhaps the last time you’ll have – to make the change you promised. Now or maybe never. And I accept that challenge personally. A promise for tomorrow is meaningless if that tomorrow never dawns.

Perhaps the most famous procrastinator in English literature is Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His lack of action is blamed for the deaths of many. I certainly hope my procrastination has never led to such dire consequences. But there have been negative consequences, and I regret each one.

And I’ll regret procrastinating about posting this if I don’t do it now!