Stop Giving One Hundred Percent!

John Mark Reynolds | Torrey Honors Institute | Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Stop Giving One Hundred Percent!

College students are encouraged to live a balanced life and then each department demands one hundred percent effort. This hypocrisy is not intentional, but a result of departmental myopia. Most professors can only see the importance of their own area.

I once had a colleague tell me that the rigorous general education of Torrey had lowered his student's GPA by three or four percentage points. The fact that this student was still getting an A did not matter. Liberal studies were distracting from the major, because one hundred percent effort was not possible.

Of course, Torrey tutors can assign the greatest texts ever written and assume that every student has the time to read them through at least thrice!

Here is a truth: You cannot give one hundred percent to the job, the church, the family and your hobbies. Anybody that is interesting will have to be “worse” at some things in order to do other things at all.

The parent who knows she can only do so much, because her church work or reading has taken some of her time and psychic energy will never be “supermom,” but she might be the person God made her to be. We are not our jobs, even the “jobs for Jesus” that can be just as all consuming as anything else.

Of course, part of the problem is that we fill our lives with things we should not be doing.  Most of us watch too much television or spend too much time (ahem!) on social media. Having a break from “doing” is vital, but filling up our rest time with more activities where we strain to grow proficient is not very restful.

My God-given nature and talents require filling several different roles and my time and energy to give those roles is limited. As a result, I can only be as good as I can be in a balanced life at any of those tasks, not as good as “me with only one thing to do” could be.

I chose to marry and when I did I chose to write less. I am not sure, however, that I chose to write less well, because being in love with Hope has given me much of what I have to say. Still everyday comes a reminder that there is a book to be read that will not be read thoroughly, a book to be written that will get delayed, and a class to prepare that cannot get my full attention.

Love demands everything, but there are many loves in my life. I must “fall short” of a false ideal and accept my limits.

This is hard to accept in myself, but easy to see as good for others. I enjoy watching relaxed amateurs do something “pretty well.” Every year my wife and I see hardworking Torrey students put on excellent amateur theatrical productions. We also go attend professional theater in cities around the world. We enjoy Torrey Theater as much as the best professional groups ... just in a different way.

Watching friends do their best (in the context of their lives) with something that is not their paid job is joyful. We root for them as we never do professionals. Charge thirty pounds for a ticket in London and we expect to love the play. Ask for five dollars at Biola University and we expect to love the performers.

The driven theater group with delusions of Broadway may turn out a better performance, or not, but they are surely not having much fun. Watching amateurs have no fun is unlovely ... worse than a few missed notes or lines from a more relaxed group.

Fun is underrated. It is not the perfect sign that things are going well, but it is a good sign. If I am not enjoying something that is good for me, it is a sign that there is something out of balance in me or that what seems good for me isn’t.

Something is wrong when the good, true, and beautiful is not enjoyable.

What of pain?

There are two kinds of pain. There is the almost-enjoyable and short-lived pain of accomplishment that takes us to the greater pleasure. Learning another language is like this. Then there is pain that comes because of sin. This pain was not God’s best intention, but is a result of my failure and the failures around me.

Sometimes I cause my own bad pain by demanding more from myself than God wanted me to demand. Instead of enjoying my workout like a 48-year-old can, I demand my body respond as it did at 28 and am miserable when it does not. So folly turns a pleasure into a pain.

Mostly we should press through pain for joy. If there is never any joy, then we should seek wisdom from others. We may have medical problems (like biologically-based depression) or we may have sin in our life that needs to be purged.

Or it could be that equally hurting people are turning what should be joyful into a grind.

This doesn’t squash excellence, but neither does it encourage it.

A man or woman can be motivated by many things. Achilles became an excellent warrior fueled by rage, but it cost him his beloved friend. Napoleon used dreams of glory to carry him to Imperial sway, but it cost him his character and Europe her peace. Lenin used resentment to become ruler of Russia, but he destroyed the Russia he wanted to rule. Don Giovanni used twisted love and gained power, but lost his soul.

What should drive any quest for excellence?

True love of a thing that Love Himself gave me to do as part of my nature. These gifts of God stir passion in me and this passion drives me to a goal. What a man will do in terror for a time, he will do naturally for love and do it longer.

Of course sometimes my broken self, selfish and demanding, does not love what it should. At that moment duty, the higher love for what should be instead of what is, kicks into gear to carry me forward. This stern moment will not last forever, because over time Jesus will teach my soul to love what it should.

I am not very good at much, but I am becoming. Becoming who? I am learning to fill the little niche in the cosmos God made me to fill. I am becoming as happy as I can be, but no happier.

Join me!

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Professor of Philosophy at Biola University. In 1996 he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Rochester. John Mark Reynolds can be found blogging regularly at Scriptorium Daily.

Publication date: August 30, 2011