We closed the school year with our traditional Christmas dinner. Is was surrounded by a host of tasks that had to be completed. Obviously the dinner took some preparing but there were also exams to invigilate (mind numbing) and mark (worse), reports to write, meetings to be held, carols to be sung, articles to be submitted for the school magazine and even preparations for the new school year. Tempers frayed and it wasn’t just the Christmas turkey that got carved up.
On a particular day in the village of Bethany two millennia ago, another big meal was being prepared at the home of sisters, Mary and Martha. Of course that’s the day Jesus showed up (probably why he showed up). Martha was so busy preparing for the event that she was distracted and stressed by a million and one details. Her sister meanwhile just sat around talking with their divine friend (we all know the sort). In the end Martha got so fed up she went to Jesus to complain that she was having to do all the work while Mary was doing none.
I’ve heard very similar conversations in schools.
Our schools and the children within them have schedules so crammed full of activities it would make ‘a CEO nervous’ and not just at the end of the year. Pressure from homework, test and exams can create a world of stress and pressure. Add to this expectations around performance in sport or other extracurricular activities and the very things that most people look to for rest and relaxation add to the burden. While teen bodies may be in shape, teen mental health is not. It’s not much better for the teachers who have to plan, execute, assess and then report on all this, ensuring the term is an unremitting treadmill that can make us more hamster than human. I’m pretty sure every teacher has felt like Martha at some (if not most) stages of their career.
So what’s the solution? Back to Bethany. The response of Jesus to Martha’s complaint is recorded as “…only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it and it will not be taken away from her”. In the midst of the craziness Mary had discovered the ‘one thing’ worth doing.
Have you discovered your ‘one thing’ yet?
A psychologist friend of mine tells me that rather than being distracted and multitasking we have to endeavour to focus on one thing at a time and treat even the mundane activities in our lives as sacred. If we are doing the washing up then focus on that, if we are listening to a child read then be fully present for that. Marking hundreds of exam scripts? Embrace it! What’s your one thing or one person right now? Maybe it’s just one student, colleague, parent or child family member? We too can sit with Jesus ‘as what we do for the least of these we do it for him’.
Mary of Bethany was likely the same Mary who wasted a years’ worth of money by pouring perfume over Jesus’ feet. Doing the ‘one thing’ can appear like a waste of time, effort and resources. Even if you don’t see it as a waste, your colleagues probably will and, if they’re anything like teachers I have worked with, will probably tell you so. Just like Martha.
Recently the power of ‘one thing’ has come to the fore. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world’s 5th ranked university, recently asked their applicants to focus on ‘one thing’ that they have done well rather than the usual listing all of their high school achievements. Similarly a study by Harvard University of National Merit scholars in America showed that if you had to isolate all the variables that made these pupils successful the ‘one thing’ that stood out as being crucial was that these students got to sit down to dinner every night with their family. It appears that eating together as a family is more important to academic success than homework, reading, extra lessons and all the other time fillers we cram our lives with.
It turns out then that Christmas dinner might be one of the most important things I do this year. In the midst of the mania, that’s a comforting thought. Make sure sitting down around the table with those you love is on your to do list this holiday season.