The Productivity Trap
& The Double Edge Sword of A Thomas the Train Philosophy
On the Island of Sodor, there is a rampant theology and philosophy that fuels the engines of the famously personified trains. The trains appear gleeful until they become “cross” with someone for some form of mischief, and thus ensues the generic outline of (almost) every children’s show plot line. As an aside, it’s clear that behavior modification drives the writers for most of these children shows, sadly, but I digress. The question I am somehow finding myself deeply wrestling with in my own life is one that is unequivocally adhered to, believed, and solicited at every turn of the rails on Sodor. This philosophy is touted by Sir Topham Hatt as he penguins around the island, mostly disgruntled and sometimes pleased, depending on the behavior of his trains. So what is it? What is the question every train (and now myself) is asking at all times on the island? What is their religion? Their philosophy? Their existential meaning of life? It hinges on one word: useful. Sir Topham Hatt is constantly holding the engines up to the lens of this judging question: Are you a useful engine?
Inherently, I believe this is a really good question that we, here on planet Earth, need to be asking ourselves. If anyone has been away from work for an extended period of time, they have most likely felt the vacancy of their usefulness. For me, I have felt that. In a season away from daily work, separated from clear purpose or “usefulness,” I am finding myself led to question almost every aspect of my life and existence. Such emotional responses, although painful and confusing, reveal something deeply true about my constitution as a human. I am made with agency. I have a part to play in the drama of life and redemption. I should be seeking to be a useful participant in the play, whatever the role may be. The modern notion of Western Christian theology has taken human agency out of the story. Due to an over-emphasis on our desperate need for an external Savior (which is so true, amen!), we have placed ourselves at passive bystanders in all of life, sitting in the audience attempting to not fall asleep as the drama unfolds. So when reading or watching Thomas the Train and the time comes for Sir Topham Hatt to judge his engines, his question of usefulness comes careening into my heart and mind and it is good for me to ponder my usefulness. This is not because the story is reliant on my prowess or participation, but simply because I am created with agency and commissioned by my Maker for service from the very outset of the narrative. I have a part to play, and I want to play it well, not for my glory, but for the glory of the One who made me to join him in the production.
But, herein lies the double-edged conundrum the Island of Sodor places us in. For me, measuring up, being successful, proving my worth has not been purely fueled and formed out of a humble response to my reality as a human. Rather, because I am broken, being “useful” has been the sole marker of my identity. I assume I am not alone in this. Many others could join in the sorrowful song of failing attempts to prove one’s worth. “Usefulness” as a definer of our identity and personal worth is a terrible marker. It is far too weak to hold the weight of such a burden. There are many problems with this, but simply put, usefulness is fleeting, and therefore not dependable enough to stack my life on. For example, I was recently attempting to change the brakes on my car, because I am cheap and wanted to probably prove my usefulness. This entire mechanical processes is made possible by the powerful implementation of a car jack and some jack stands. These tools, though simple in form, have the ability to hold up the weight of my car. It would have been utterly foolish to run inside and take our empty paper towel roll and stick it under my car (in a secure spot, of course) and then release the jack. I would have been crushed, emotionally, as a failure, and literally, as a fool who laid under a car held up by flimsy cardboard. But, a paper towel roll is essential in its proper place. Toilet paper is rather light, and therefore poses no immediate threat to its cardboard core. In its appropriate place, cardboard has a part to play. So it is with usefulness and productivity.
So do I agree with Sir Topham Hatt? Is “usefulness” the ultimate measure of my personhood? I sure hope not. Am I thankful for the reminder that I have agency and it is good for me to put my hand to good work in service of others? Absolutely. So before Sodor’s subtle philosophy spirals you into despair and self-loathing, or puffs you up into prideful exuberance at a job well done, remember that blades are sharp, and balancing between the pitfalls can be a dangerous dance. And if nothing else, maybe the Island of Sodor can be a sobering reminder that subtle philosophies exist all around us, telling us particular narratives about life, identity, truth, and purpose. We may do well to take a moment here and there to evaluate where we are learning the ideologies influencing our daily existence. I am reminded of these every time that little blue engine “choo-choo’s” its way back into my life.
So before you click on the thousands of articles featuring their 5–7 item list of techniques to conquer productivity and change your life forever (can you tell I am quite familiar with them? They’re addicting), maybe take a moment to ask yourself a couple questions:
- What is my “why” for seeking to be productive? Is it rooted in my desire to display, demonstrate, and manifest my God-given agency? Or is it rooted in a deeper insecurity, showing itself as a flailing attempt to prove myself?
- What is the underlying belief system or philosophy of this particular approach to productivity? Is it merely a means of self-actualization, self-interest, or whatever other elevation of self exemplifies Tyler Durden’s Fight Club quote about self-improvement?
- Does this productivity advice empower me or imprison me? Does it empower me to better bear God’s image, love my neighbors, and remain faithful to my friends and family? Or does this check-list force me to neglect my myriad of responsibilities to others?
Spending a little time in thoughtful investigation of the goal of your productivity interest will help you not buy into the subtle slips of misleading ideals that can actually crush you rather than cure you. Let’s walk in wisdom together, not neglecting productive, useful lives, but not worshiping them either.