During a recent church service, I heard the familiar story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. The two sisters open their home to Jesus as he travels with his disciples. While Martha busies herself with preparations, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching. Martha complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Now, I don’t need to take any of those Are-You-Mary-Or-Martha quizzes on Facebook to figure out which sister I am. As someone who struggles constantly with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my writing and my spiritual life, I seriously relate to Martha.
In fact, the Mary-versus-Martha story reminds me of a visualization exercise my spiritual director recommended shortly after we began working together. She instructed me to imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. As I did this exercise, I realized I’d been imagining my “idealized state” (not to be confused with “ideal spiritual state”) for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman I facetiously call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL.
Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings, where she serves up a banquet better than anything Martha Stewart could produce. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is not only healthy, but painless, because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned ALL the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.
The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions, or engaging in my annual birthday tradition of evaluating my priorities and setting goals for the coming year. Coupled with the Super Me fantasy is what I’d call the Ultimate Rejection fantasy, in which people wrinkle their noses in utter disgust when they find out what my house really looks like if I’m not expecting company. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Luke had told us that Martha harbored both of these fantasies from time to time.
I’m relieved whenever I discover I’m not alone in having “Martha” tendencies. I laughed out loud when Alicia, author of the blog For His Purpose, used “Martha Stewart” as a verb. “I like to say I can just Martha Stewart everything,” Alicia confessed in one of her posts (link HERE), as she expressed her fear that the exchange student coming to live with her family would decide that her whole household was nuts and run screaming back to Russia in response to the chaos. In my own case, I feel compelled to warn houseguests not to venture into my basement or garage lest I find it necessary to file a missing persons report and organize a search party to rescue them.
“As an overachieving Martha myself, I am trying to understand Mary doing the better thing first,” said Elizabeth, author of Saved By Words (link HERE), in response to my birthday blog post, in which I outlined my priorities for the coming year (link HERE). “Not that Martha is doing anything wrong. Just that at the time sitting at Jesus’ feet was more important.” In the ensuing discussion, she and I agreed we both might possess some Martha-like traits.
The dilemma is real.
I struggle with the advice Jesus gave Martha. I agree that we need to keep what’s really important at the forefront. This was brought home to me rather painfully over the summer. With my beloved mother in hospice, the past few months represented my last chance to “visit with her more often.”
On the other hand, doesn’t Galatians 5:22-23 remind us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control? In my mind, self-control equals the self-discipline to maintain healthy eating habits, family obligations, a clean house and active participation in church and community, among other things.
And then, of course, we women have the Proverbs 31 Woman often held up by fellow believers as an example to emulate. If the Proverbs 31 Woman were transported to the 21st Century, I can imagine her having Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career, Christie Brinkley’s looks and Martha Stewart’s homemaking and entertaining skills. For starters.
Besides, I’ve found that several of the priorities I identified in my birthday post are really no longer optional for me. For example, with my newly-diagnosed diabetes, healthy eating is no longer simply a worthy goal, but a medical necessity.
While perhaps less crucial, crossing backlog tasks off my to-do list actually makes my life easier in the long run. Certain things really do need to get done, like it or not. Keeping the fridge and pantry in order reduces food waste – better for both our budget and the environment. When the clutter around the house gets out of control, my whole life feels out of control. It’s stressful to have deadlines hanging over my head all the time.
And I have one priority that hasn’t changed since I was 10: Write a book! The fact that I’m retired means I have never been in a better position to achieve this dream, and the time to do it is now, not some future date when everything will have settled down and fallen into place so I can start living my life in earnest.
All of this requires some level of the self-control spelled out in Galations 5:23 as a “fruit of the spirit.”
The good news is, my life does not feel nearly as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service organization. And I do like to think my current priorities are a vast improvement over the ones I had in high school, when being popular was my number one goal, or even in my 40s and 50s, when my top priority (judging by my behavior) was chasing after brass rings and fancy job titles.
Before I retired, it seemed as if my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carried around constantly and jokingly called “my conscience.” I constantly juggled so many balls in the air, I was convinced I had to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spent my time, I couldn’t seem to keep up with all the demands.
Even now, however, repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”
So yes, I do need to practice some reasonable self-discipline. But at the same time, I also want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists. In other words, I’d like for my life to include a few more “Mary” moments.
It’s nice to be able to find things when I need them without sorting through mounds of clutter. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people (and pets) live here, no matter how much time I spend cleaning. There will never be a time when my house is in perfect order inside and out, including the closets, the garage and the basement. The perfectly clean house exists only in Better Homes and Gardens – and then only for the hour or so needed to photograph it. Unless you’re Martha Stewart, who probably not only has a full-time housekeeper, but a full-time housekeeping staff. (Speaking of Martha Stewart, is she the ultimate “Martha” in the Mary and Martha story?)
“Baby steps,” my spiritual director often advises when I complain of my life feeling out of control. “That’s what matters.” The baby-steps advice does seem to work when I heed it. In the past month, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), the freezer in the basement (one shelf at a time) and the pantry (one shelf at a time), as well as sorting through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail. I’m finding ways to make the food preparation required for healthy eating easier – batch cooking, for example.
Meanwhile, I try to muster the self-discipline to include morning meditation in my daily routine as often as possible. This reminds me to keep my relationship with God “in the #1 slot,” as the folks around the tables in 12-Step groups would say.
Of course, when it comes to Super Me, I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. One thing coping with multiple medical issues over the past few months has done for me is, I’ve stopped trying to Martha-Stewart anything. At least for now, while I’m healing. And maybe, as Martha Stewart herself would say, “That’s a good thing.”
As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve the level of perfection I fantasize about in my Super Me daydreams, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.
Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.
There’s a secret part of me, however, that still hopes Mary helped Martha wash the dishes after Jesus left. After all, food preparation and clean-up don’t happen by themselves.