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Martha to the Max
Balanced Living for Perfectionists
By Debi Stack
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2000 Debi Stack
All rights reserved.
I Was Sinking Deep in Sin (Whee!)
Every office has its Twilight Zone. The closet or stock area from which unwitting employees never return.
For me, it was the storage room at the ministry where I worked in the 1980s. A vast, untamed jungle of leaning shelves, twisted Venetian blinds, mildewed boxes, and reams of worthless records. Dust covered the new supplies, which covered the old supplies, which covered the chipped-tile floor from wall to wall.
Teresa, my co-worker, best friend, and a die-hard workaholic herself, took the initiative. We walked down the ministry's main hall to the last room on the left. (Isn't there a horror movie about such a location?) She turned on the light switch. One florescent bulb out of four flickered and hummed overhead, as if to say, "I can't hold on much longer!" Teresa swept the storeroom with a disdainful eye, then turned to me.
"This storage room is pathetic."
"No one cares about this room. Everyone just crams stuff in here that really belongs in the trash."
"No one can find supplies when they need them, so they just order new ones. And the few important records the ministry needs can't be found because of all the junk piled on top of them. This room" (which she said in the "That dog!" tone pet owners use during the housebreaking stage) "is a source of stress and shame to everyone."
I brightened at a new thought. "And it's a fire hazard!"
Teresa brightened, too. "You're right. It's up to us to do something."
She didn't have to ask me twice. I'd been longing after that room with every color-coded gene in my body since I first opened its door.
At 7:00 A. M. one Saturday, we started cleansing the temple. We worked like fevered priests, purging the inner sanctum of disorganization and debris.
"Can you believe some of this stuff?" Teresa asked as she held up a bowling ball. "Why did anyone think this belonged in here?"
"Beats me," I muttered from under a sagging worktable where I'd found five cartons of shrink-wrapped letterhead—all with outdated addresses. "Some people don't have a clue about what to keep and what to throw away."
When we broke for lunch that afternoon at three o'clock, we didn't put our feet up and relax. While we ate yogurt and granola bars, we pored over office supply catalogs. The glossy pages of lateral file cabinets, storage bins, and label makers inspired us to transform the musty storage tomb into a well-lighted showcase of our organizational ability.
This project took more than one Saturday. We postponed hauling black trash bags of junk to the dumpsters until dark lest an observant pack rat try to stop us. Why did someone keep 582 leftover brochures from a fund-raiser in 1973? We kept 10 in a labeled folder, which went in the new box for the 1970–75 archives. Why did someone keep an office chair with three wheels and no back? We ordered an ergonomically smart new one on sale and got free shipping to boot.
At last, the day arrived to unveil this wonder to the other staff members. Their wide-eyed awe of the transformed room rewarded our efforts. Crisp-lettered signs hung everywhere, pointing out the obvious. Our guided tour of the new storage room had a condescending tone.
"See this bin with the label marked 'pens'? All the pens are in this bin."
The glory lasted for about a week. Teresa and I fumed and grieved over the shameless treatment of our crowning achievement.
"Why can't they put things back where they belong?"
"They don't see the obvious."
"Nothing gets done around here unless we do it ourselves."
"They don't care."
"Why do we even bother to make things nicer?"
We had a serious "us versus them" complex based not on color, sex, race, or religion but on personality type: A versus B.
Back in the 1980s, you could hardly pick up a magazine, tune in a radio station, watch a talk show, or read the New York Times best-seller list without finding at least one reference to the Type A personality. Describing the same personality type today, you might find buzzwords like driven, perfectionist, workaholic, overachiever, tireless servant, superwoman, mover and shaker, power-hungry, and obsessive compulsive. (Since Marthas are always interested in saving time, let's call that last one "O-C" for short.) Most of these terms are self-explanatory, but O-C may be new to you. Here's a quick definition.
Individuals with this particular cluster of personality traits tend to be conscientious, self-sacrificing, organized, perfectionistic, and devout.
Ooo! I like that! No wonder Teresa and I joined the "Type A, O-C, Martha-to-the-Max" union on the spot. Not only did we admire these qualities, we exemplified them beautifully in our storage room project.
Being conscientious and discerning (or uptight and judgmental, depending on your perspective), Teresa and I saw everything as perfect or putrid, right or wrong. So, because we were Type A's, we were right. That made everyone else a Type B, and it also made them (you guessed it) wrong. Simple, isn't it? Had we read this definition further, we might not have been so proud of ourselves since it calls perfectionism a "difficulty" and says Type A people are more prone to burnout, depression, and other not-so-good things. And all the while, Teresa and I thought perfectionism was a coveted personality trait bestowed upon a blessed few. Had we the power, we would have injected a dose of it into most other people we knew. So, while the terms may change to suit trends, the behavior —and its problems—is as timeless as ever.
AND NOW, BACK TO OUR PROGRAM
Of course Teresa and I were superior. As classic perfectionists, we easily spotted ways to improve everything. We planned ahead. We made lists. We designed charts. We skipped lunch. We worked overtime without pay. We proudly did the work of two or three people each. And we considered the Type B's surrounding us as our cross to bear on earth.
The Type B's didn't have a clue about time management. As classic social butterflies, organization to them was not a thing to do but a thing to join for the nifty membership pin and free refreshments. They viewed deadlines as suggested time frames to begin a project, not have it done. They actually sat around and talked during lunch. They left work promptly at 5:00 P. M. each afternoon. They drove us nuts.
Teresa and I piously comforted each other with the assurance that in heaven, there will not be "types" of people because we'll all be the same. Then she asked the question that began changing my life: "Are they going to be like us, or are we going to be like them?"
Whoa! Me? Demoted to be like them? It would be like having my wings clipped; being exiled to an alien planet; being a writer who's run out of similes.
Then a verse came to mind about what happens when we reach heaven: "We will be like Him." That sounded to me as if all believers will be like Christ. But my ever-evaluating mind wanted to know who would have to change the most to be like Christ— the Type A's or the Type B's? Certainly if heaven is perfect and Christ is perfect, then perfectionistic Type A's would require little improvement compared to the lackadaisical Type B's.
Then another verse came to mind: "Pride goes before destruction."
That scenario of perfectionistic behavior took place in the early 1980s, and I still can't decide whether to be proud or ashamed of it. Sure, I got a lot done and people commended me for my outstanding work ethic. But the short-lived glory was just a thin coating over a constant feeling of doom. Before me, I saw endless projects needing to be done. Behind me, I saw endless projects needing to be redone. And there I was in the middle—spinning my workaholic wheels as fast as I could, but not daring to stop and ask why.
Have you ever felt that way? Do you feel that way now? If so, you probably also fear, as I did, that life will always be this way. The light burden and easy yoke Jesus spoke of sounds wonderful—and completely unrealistic. After all, how can we rest when there is so much work to be done? And why in the round world don't the Type B people around us share our urgency to complete project after project?
We're not the first women to ask this question. First-century Bethany in Palestine boasted its own resident, Type A, workaholic woman. This powerhouse sister of Mary and Lazarus often opened her home to Jesus when He traveled near Jerusalem. Frustrated with shouldering all the happy hostess work herself (again), Martha asked Jesus why He didn't light a fire under her starry-eyed sister Mary so she'd help, too. His reply has been nagging me for years:
"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."
So what's wrong with Martha wanting to be a good hostess? I totally understand her wanting her environment to be ordered, her home to be spotless, and her projects to be flawless.
But such lofty expectations, I've since learned, often create a cycle of anger, frenzied work, and depression. Why don't the people around me notice what obviously needs to be done? Why don't they appreciate my self-sacrificing efforts to make things better? Why, no matter how hard I work, can I not achieve perfection, let alone maintain it?
If you've asked these same questions of yourself, consider this book a personal letter to you, written with the heartfelt love and hard-earned insight from me and other Christian women who've lived, and are still living, the struggle between naturally being like Martha and choosing to be like Mary.
Like Martha, I am tempted to perfect my own personal kingdom, not seek the kingdom of God. Like Martha, I tend to view life as a series of projects, not a path toward knowing and serving Christ.
And yet, the inherent perfectionistic Martha-qualities are there by God's design.
Eric Liddell, the 1930s Olympic runner profiled in the award-winning movie Chariots of Fire, said, "The Lord made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure." The challenge for Marthas today regarding their abilities is to view them and use them in a way that brings a smile to the face of God.
There's one in every family.
This is the person who gets the most mileage out of travel plans by obsessing over uncontrollable details way in advance—fuel prices, traffic flow, the weather. "Sorry kids, but I'm canceling the road trip to Yosemite. There's a cloud in the sky somewhere over Nebraska. It's just not worth the risk."
Departing from a maxed-out lifestyle toward unknown territory may raise some worries in your mind, too. While it may feel safer to stay on familiar home ground, doing so means missing out on all kinds of wonderful stuff. Breathtaking vistas. Heart-stopping natural wonders. A set of toothpick holders imprinted with "DELBERT'S TRUCK STOP."
Besides stocking up on antacids, plan to encounter lots of detours, delays, and orange barrels. Why? Because far from being a straight and smooth superhighway, the path toward discovering the "one thing" that Jesus told Martha was needed is a bumpy, meandering road under construction. Though I looked long and hard for a shortcut to the "one thing," none could be found. Along the way, though, I discovered things about myself, my perceptions, my relationships, and my health that I'll share with you. They include:
— insight into how we get ourselves so maxed out
— the similarities between Martha of Bethany and us
— the surprising source of perfectionism
— a predictable pattern to overworking and burnout (plus how to overcome it!)
— how to relax even when we're not in the mood and don't have time
— freedom from the maxed-out lifestyle
— and more!
So read on. Watch me go over the bumps, miss my exit, and run out of gas. Eventually, I find what I believe to be the "one thing" Jesus spoke of. When you find it, too, I think you'll agree that all those orange barrels are worth their weight in gold.CHAPTER 2
Testing, Testing ... How Much of a Martha Are You?
Hold it right there.
If you're one of those types of people who think there aren't any types of people, you probably never went to camp as a kid.
At camp, where attendees are supposed to become one peaceful tribe, warring bands form shortly after arrival. Kids who have never seen each other before mysteriously break into types and gravitate together. The renegade girls who sneak in with cigarettes and out with boys somehow find each other. The brainy boys who handle snakes and compasses with equal ease, if not equal skill, find each other too. ("Sheldon! Quick! Before you pass out, which way is north and how do we make a tourniquet?")
Even if the kids didn't naturally group together, their counselors would do it for them. Imagine what would happen at a Bible camp with a Twenty-third Psalm theme. A camp leader tweets her whistle and gives orders on which kids go to which cabins.
"All first-timers who've never even spent the night at your grandma's house and are trying really hard not to cry, line up and follow your counselor to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
"Bed wetters, follow your counselor to My Cup Runneth Over.
"Campers who, against policy, have smuggled banned items of any kind, including tobacco and electronics, will bunk with me, the camp director, and her pit bull in The Presence of My Enemies."
What's that you say? You never went to camp? Certainly you've watched television!
TV scriptwriters have long used personality conflict as the basis of both drama and comedy. Remember the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies? Their backwoods upbringing was comical because it was plopped into a refined and elegant setting. And don't forget the Douglases from Green Acres. Their cultured New York background made their new life in Hooterville a real hoot. Leaving those fictional families in their original settings, surrounded by others who thought and acted exactly as they did, wouldn't have been even a fraction as funny.
Watching these characters interact (and in some cases, overact) is entertaining. But living the same kind of personality conflict in the real world is not. If you're a project-oriented Type A Martha who's ever butted heads with a people-oriented Type B Mary, you know exactly what I'm talking about. It's awful. It's irritating. It's like chewing foil. But it's not incurable! As we move together through this book, we'll learn how to minimize the stressful "us versus them" attitude.
But for now, since I have systematically proven from backbreaking, in-depth research that yes, indeed, there are definite types of people in the world, I deserve to take a short break. The only question remaining is, should I watch Gilligan's Island or I Dream of Jeannie?
I CAN TYPE 75 PEOPLE A MINUTE
Grouchy as a bear. Meek as a mouse. Strong as an ox. Cold as a fish.
Distant. Emotional. Workaholic. Bum.
Type A. Type B.
We ever-evaluating Marthas size up others everywhere we go and slap labels on them before you can say "self-righteous." I've always done this while priding myself that I'm not like all those other Christians who use personality type as sanctified horoscopes to pigeonhole, prophesy, and pass judgment.
"He obviously lacks motivation."
"Their marriage won't last. Everyone knows their temperaments don't mix."
"She overeats because she's introverted."
"Type A's are better than Type B's because they get the job done, and done right the first time." (Well, that one's true, isn't it?)
You know from reading so far that I consider myself a Type A, Martha person. Probably you consider yourself to be a Martha, too. There are literally hundreds of personality and temperament tests available, and I could have used one of those in this book, but why take the easy way out? True to my Martha nature of doing and redoing everything myself, I made my own test.
Please remember that the test below, and, yea, verily, this whole book, is written for Christian women who are maxed out with perfectionism and can't remember the last time they had a good laugh at themselves. This book is not intended for readers who are so consumed by perfectionism or obsessive-compulsive behavior that simple daily functions are continually disturbed. If you have crossed the line between these two, please seek help from a qualified professional. The resources today are wonderful and plentiful! Even better, the love, mercy, and healing grace of God are available to you in unlimited measure. A list of starting places is in chapter 18, "Resources".
Excerpted from Martha to the Max by Debi Stack. Copyright © 2000 Debi Stack. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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