My Most Important Work

12292857216_da660329c9_z I'm having a realization as I stare at my iPhone's calendar, full of dots that represent meetings, events, obligations, get-togethers, classes, and appointments.

It's a slightly scratchy feeling that gnaws at the spots I can't reach with my arms as I buzz through my days. Days sucked dry with all the waking, walking the dog, ironing, packing lunches and changes of clothes, eating, commuting, teaching, emailing, texting, social media-ing, eating, reading, studying, working out, driving, class-ing, grocery shopping, laundry-ing, and...more eating.

That feeling, I know, originates from my to-do list (my to- do lists, more accurately) and crawls around my skin and at just the right moment, when I've stopped to catch my breath or close my heavy eyelids, I hear it say:

You can't get all of this done.

The worst part?

It's right.

If anyone is need of some space, some margin--it's me. I like to keep telling myself that it's because of grad school, that this is just a season that will be over at some point. However valid or not that reasoning is, the fact remains that I can't, and I won't, get everything done.

As much as that bothers me, as much as I hate the feeling of incomplete tasks and the cackling jeers of unchecked items on my to-do lists, I've come to a place of calm in my chaos. It's not resignation; it's more like fog lights that cut through the morning mist enough to allow me to see just enough to move forward. In this season of plenty-to-do, there's one question I've been asking myself and using as my north star:

What is my most important work?

It's a crucial question for me. For a while now, I've been privileged to not have to deal with the problem of not having work. Instead, I have the challenge of never-ending work. The piles of tasks I have seem to regenerate faster than the rate at which I make them disappear, and a line has formed out the door.

Rather than tackle these tasks the way a restaurant kitchen would handle its food tickets--one at a time, in chronological order--I've spent a lot of time asking myself what's most important, and devote my energy to that first. Why? Because when this season of life is over for me--in six months, a year, two years, or whenever--I don't want to look back and realize that I neglected what actually mattered.

So what is my most important work?

It's taken me years of working through trials and errors, getting lost, chasing the wind, disappointments, heartbreak, selfishness, pride, foolish ambitions, blind optimism and reeling cynicism, sky-high triumphs and rock-bottom failures, abundance and near-poverty, company and loneliness--to realize that my most important work is people.

Achievement can be great. Accolades can be great. Awards and accomplishments and all that jazz can be great.

But God forbid that a student comes into my class in September, leaves in June, and never hears me say, "Good job." Never hears me say, "I believe in you." Never knows what it feels like to have someone who is rooting for them.

God forbid that I lead a group of people and they never know that I am for them. That I care more about who they are than what they can do for me.

God forbid that I arrive in one piece at the end of this season of plenty-to-do and a friend has slowly fallen apart and hasn't heard me once ask, "What is going on with you? What challenges do you have right now? How can I help?"

God forbid that I waste my words trying to promote myself, or criticizing people, or spreading cynicism, when I've been given such power to bring light and hope in what I say and write.

God forbid that I reach some goal of mine, pay off my debts, build my platform, publish my work, improve my students' test scores, speak about some important topic, play some decent music, but have the people who are important to me not know what it's like to experience my love for them.

What a tragedy I'd have on my hands.

What a shame it would be to have missed the forest for the trees.

How long it's taken me to realize what my important work is...and how sad it would be for me to neglect it, knowing what I know.

In this season of plenty-to-do, I will undoubtedly make mistakes. I will allow certain tasks to slip through the cracks. I will disappoint someone at some point. All of this will grieve me to some extent.

But it's nothing compared to the grief I'll feel if I look back and my most important work hasn't been done.

Cutting through the chaos, shining through the fog, singing a melody over the noise, are the beating hearts of the people I care about and am privileged to have in my life.

They are my work.

You are my work.

I hope I get that job done.

What about you? What's your most important work?

Feature photo ©2014 Ingrid Eulenfan | Flickr