On juggling acts, letting balls drop, and the power of No

I’m slowly coming to accept that I can’t be all things. For instance, I can’t be a best-selling author (okay, I have a long, long way to go to get there, but the climb up that ladder takes a lot of work), run multiple businesses AND be a first-rate housekeeper. I also can’t be an aspiring best-seller, run my businesses, be a sort-of-okay housekeeper (at least the laundry gets folded and put away and the dishes get cleaned), AND accept every invitation to join or attend every local writer’s group, business networking group, or author’s event that comes my way.

"What's that? One more ball to keep in the air? Sure, no problem!" Photo courtesy of Victoria Pickering via Flickr.
“What’s that? One more ball to keep in the air? Sure, no problem!” Photo courtesy of Victoria Pickering via Flickr Creative Commons.

There is only so much time in the day, and you have to pick your battles.

The Bible talks about two sisters named Mary and Martha (if you haven’t heard of them, they had a famous brother named Lazarus. You know, the guy Jesus resurrected after four days in the grave). Martha, the older sister, is a type A personality, very responsible and always trying to take care of everybody. Mary, the younger sister, is more laid back and makes time for the things she knows are truly important.

Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Luke tells us about a time when the sisters were hosting Jesus and (presumably) his disciples. As Jesus was preaching to those who had come to see him, Martha was busy in the kitchen, bustling around to make sure there was enough food and refreshments for all the guests. I can imagine that Martha’s last name was actually Stewart and that she was going to a lot of trouble to make sure everything was impressive and perfect.

Meanwhile, Mary was in the living room, camped out at the Lord’s feet and listening to his teachings.

When Martha saw this, she became full of anger and resentment. She felt overworked and overwhelmed and couldn’t believe Mary wasn’t getting off of her butt to help out.

As soon as she had an opportunity, Martha approached Jesus to voice her complaints. She revealed that her frustration wasn’t only directed at her sister, but also at the Lord himself. She pointed out that he saw how hard she was working to make all of the guests comfortable, and he never even said a word to Mary to suggest that maybe she should get up and go help.

Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t appreciate everything Martha was doing, but the fact is, no one asked her to go to so much trouble. Jesus knew that the time of his earthly ministry was running short, and Mary realized that hearing his teaching while she had the chance was way more important than serving an elaborate meal when a tray of cheese and crackers would’ve sufficed.

This reminds me of the time I put on a baby shower for one of my sisters. I went all out for that shower. Don’t get me wrong — I had fun doing it, and I don’t have any resentment about all the work I put into it. But I realize that I created a lot of extra work, not only for myself but also for those who’d volunteered to help out. I wasn’t satisfied with store-bought cake or cupcakes, or even using a mix — I had to make everything from scratch. I opted for an elaborate non-alcoholic Sangria recipe instead of a can of Fruit Punch. I even made most of the decorations myself. Of course, the shower was a big hit and everyone was duly impressed, but really, everyone would have been just as satisfied if I’d taken several shortcuts — they probably wouldn’t have even known the difference — and I and my helpers would’ve been a lot less stressed by the time my sister and the guests arrived.

I used to be more of a Mary. When I was younger, I was all about taking shortcuts, and it wasn’t that difficult for me to make time for the things that were truly important to me. But somewhere along the line I morphed into a Martha, always staying busy, creating unneeded work for myself as I tried to impress people with what a hard worker I am, always being available, trying to prove my reliability and strong work ethic.

Meanwhile, I was neglecting relationships and my own health, as well as my writing and the furtherance of my own dreams.

I’ve been trying lately to go back to being more like Mary. It’s not easy. It involves getting focused on what’s truly needed and letting a lot of things fall by the wayside. It also involves saying no a lot, which is always difficult. What if the person asking gets offended? What if they don’t understand? Should I explain all the reasons why this request will place undue hardship on my life? What if they get angry and don’t like me anymore?

For the record, I’ve learned that Oprah was right: “No” is a complete sentence (I’m not often in the habit of quoting Oprah, but she had a few gems). There’s no need to explain unless asked, and even then, I find that “It’s just a really bad time” is usually explanation enough. That covers a multitude of reasons, from financial difficulty to an overbooked schedule to needing time to rest to simply not wanting to do it.

So what about you? Are you more of a Mary or a Martha? How do you deal with being stretched too thin and saying no? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “On juggling acts, letting balls drop, and the power of No

  1. I feel like both a Mary and a Martha. At times, I feel I’m going full force, rushing and rushing. I used to feel that way with my students – always after them to turn in late work, staying up until midnight to work on work they’d turn in two weeks late, trying to provide the best feedback so everyone could get an A, etc.

    Now, though, I’m less of a Martha. I don’t rush to answer every email as soon as I receive it. I don’t nag students to turn in late work, and I don’t give them as many comments, which would only confuse them anyway. A few simple, direct comments help best.

    I do find that I need some Martha in my personality, because I would otherwise spend all my life on Pinterest.

    1. HA! I know what you mean. I spend way too much time on Pinterest as it is. If not for my Martha side I’d never stop scrolling and pinning.

      I’m glad you’ve found a better balance in your teaching job. I remember when that was a major source of stress for you. *hugs*

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