It’s common to hear a person speak of himself as “a work in progress.” I’m sure I’ve said it, too, because that‘s generally the way I’ve seen myself. And why not? It’s allowed me to think of myself as both humble and goal-oriented, a pretty admirable combination.
The only problem is that it’s a partial truth. It’s equally true that I’m a work in regress. Whatever progress I may have made in my work, in continuing education, and the pursuit of various goals, I’ve let other things slide, often in big ways. Sometimes my most important relationships, though high on my official priority list, aren’t allotted much in the way of hours–or even minutes. Other times it’s spiritual disciplines or exercise. I once had time for them, but now they’re more theoretically than actually important, because the latter would require giving them a block of time each day.
Regress doesn’t happen because I want it or plan for it. It often happens because I’m not paying attention. I think that if I’m busy doing good things, if I’m tired at the end of the day, everything must be okay. But busy days and fatigue can be acquired year round at bargain prices. They’re common in the business world, and in medicine and education, as well as in fine arts and non-profits.
Regress also happens when jumping through religious hoops becomes a substitute for character. When I was a child in Sunday School, we checked boxes on our offering envelopes as a measure of positive activity for the week. Many of my Catholic friends attended Confession and Mass on Saturday or Sunday. Jewish friends observed the Sabbath and High Holy Days. All of these things are good, but if they aren’t accompanied by growth in character, including commitment to God and others, they’re merely a mirage.
During one period of my life, I met regularly with a group of women. We enjoyed being together and laughed a lot, but our primary task was accountability, aka, honesty. We sat around a table and answered a few set questions about relationships, service, spiritual disciplines, and character. As I look back on that time, I think there may have been less regress during that period of my life than most–because I was willing to be honest with God, myself and others.
The spiritual life, which is just another way of saying life, can’t be lived well without careful attention and helpful companions. But it can be lived well with them. Saying you’re a work in progress may hint at humility, but realizing you can’t make progress alone is the real deal.