The Silent Danger of the To-Do List

Some of you may have noticed that I dropped off the map the last few weeks, and since I had only updated you on the first two weeks of a four week trip perhaps you wondered if something treacherous had happened (so kind of you, really). Good news though – I’m alive and well back in the United States.

My third week of research in Sweden uncovered a depth of complexity that is hidden behind the facade of a perfectly peaceful social system. I gleaned this information not through a scholarly article or a lecture, but more often among lunch conversations and extended hallway interactions. At one lunch, in the upstairs room of a restaurant occupying the old student prison at Uppsala University, a researcher summarized her perspective on the situation for me.

“The Swedish mentality is one of silence. Don’t say anything and avoid conflict. Everyone believes the vision of Sweden as this historically peaceful country, but that is because of silence on the darker facts.”

Silence is often associated with peacefulness. But there are two types of silence: one is receptive to truth and the other rejects truth.

By being present with each person I met, and asking the right questions, I was reminded of how necessary it is to be receptive instead of rejecting. In a new environment, I often retreat to a position of silence where I can safely observe for awhile. I must then choose whether to be receptive or rejecting of the things I observe in that position of silence. The obvious example is being aware of the judgments I make and whether they are biased or fair. However I must also be aware of myself and the actions I’m taking; it is easy to take notes and reject any sort of personal involvement, but it is much harder to be receptive to an invitation to participate.

The Uppsala Cathedral through early morning fog - a good reminder that God is still there even when something in our lives distracts us from seeing Him fully.
The Uppsala Cathedral through early morning fog – a good reminder that God is still there even when something in our lives distracts us from seeing Him fully.

This is true not only for doing research, but in daily life as well. I stopped blogging for a month because I got swept up in a complex travel itinerary, catching up with friends and family once I returned home, and then moving to a brand new city. Although it was beneficial for me to be present in each of those moments, there is a difference between living in the moment, receptive to invitations, and living in the to-do list, rejecting risky endeavors.

My silent danger is that to-do list. I grow consumed by checking things off and reject the potential moments that get in the way. I deny the possibility for peace of mind because “I just don’t have time right now.” Then, as usual, the truth of what I could be doing gets put on the back burner. This mentality also avoids conflict, because I am preventing the tension between what I need to do and my true calling of what I could do. The peace I pretend to achieve is just a cover for the peace I lack – because I can get things done without actually getting to where and who I want to be. So either I’m a really good Swede, or this is a widespread condition in humans.

Oswald Chambers wrote

“A Christian worker has to learn how to be God’s man or woman of great worth and excellence in the midst of a multitude of meager and worthless things.”

The to-do lists we busy ourselves with contain a multitude of meager things. The challenge then is to move towards a place of receptiveness, peace, or presence that is worth more than whatever we keep distracting ourselves with.

Since I just moved to a new city, I quickly found myself in that silent, observational position where I am rejecting potential moments of worth because I have too many other things to do. Although this can create a seemingly peaceful standard of feeling accomplished, I am aware of how this enables my avoidance of conflict because I don’t want to face the truth of what I could be doing instead.

For some of us, the to-do list keeps us from monumental life changes like the career we wish we had or the life of faith we are too afraid to embrace. For others, the to-do list prevents us from small moments of meaning, invitations to care for another person, or even gratitude for simple things. Whatever it is, to achieve a life of excellence and great worth requires being receptive to the less obvious parts of life. Once we begin to focus on what we really want to be doing, instead of only what needs to be done, we can find the meaning we are all striving for in life.

This is a daily challenge. Remember to give yourself grace for the days when your to-do list is all you can manage. Unfortunately sometimes that is simply where we are in life. But don’t settle because you think you aren’t capable of anything more. Instead of outright rejecting the invitations for new experiences, avoiding the conflicts of fear and insecurity, open yourself up to the possibility of meaning even in the smallest of moments. They say you can’t find something you aren’t looking for—it is true not only for the things we are too afraid to face, but also for the joy we don’t believe we can achieve. The beauty of hope is believing God has something more meaningful in store for you than your to-do list, as long as you are willing to be receptive enough to look for it.


How has your to-do list prevented you from being receptive?

What things would you do if you didn’t have anything else in your way?

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