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by April Fiet
Sometimes, I feel like I’m building an enormous tower.
My building materials are not brick and bitumen, but all of the things I do every day. I make another to-do list, write another article, compose another tweet, and fill another moment of silence with the noise of all the doing I do.
Sometimes even the creative endeavors are transformed into hardened bricks of the tower I’m constructing. I make something new from yarn or flour. I read another book. I begin another project, just to place one more brick on the towering stack.
I fall into bed, exhausted. Building a tower that reaches into the heavens is a weary-making task.
I used to think the Tower of Babel was an ages-old story that began and ended in Genesis 11. Yet, the tower from that story seems to find its way into my own life story more often than I care to admit. It prods me onward, and I pick up my building tools again.
I used to think the Tower of Babel was a story of people who wanted to be like God. Today, I am wondering if perhaps, instead, it is a story of people who are desperate to make meaning of their own lives.
The Tower of Babel is a story of people struggling to name themselves, and they do it by trying to find their identity in their grand accomplishments.
The Tower of Babel is also a story of a people, who by their delusions of grandeur end up isolating themselves from God and from the rest of the world.
Isn’t that how overachieving works?
In the lists and projects and tasks to be done are attempts to answer the questions: who am I? and why do I matter? And the questions are asked out of a deep desire to be a part of something that makes a difference. But the answers are not in finding more to do. In a cruel twist, the overachiever ends up isolated from the meaning and belonging and identity she was attempting to find in the first place.
We build up our towers, only to find ourselves isolated from the community that exists just outside our walls. We make plans for the next great project, only to miss out on the spontaneous joys and experiences at our fingertips. We labor to make a name for ourselves, only to find ourselves cut off from the One who already knows each one of us by name.
The tower building of overachieving begins with a false premise: if something is good, even more of that something is better. It was this premise that led the Pharisees to ensure they tithed even the smallest of herbs – like mint and rue. The burden of this religious legalism crushed many who sought after God, and even the Pharisees who insisted on stricter observance found themselves neglecting justice and love. Stricter observance did not equal deeper faith. Greater achievement could not answer the deepest question of all: Who am I?
Sometimes, I feel like I’m building an enormous tower of all the things I expect of myself. But, today I am taking the tower apart, one brick at a time. The most powerful tool of deconstruction is the tiny, yet neglected word “no.” I say “no” to the endless pursuit of tower building in order to say “yes” to the living springs of life.
I say “no” to the endless hamster wheel of trying to find my identity in the stuff that I accomplish in order to say “yes” to the identity that is neither earned nor achieved – an identity we affirm whenever we baptize a child.
…for you Jesus came into the world; for you he died and conquered death; all this he did for you, little one, though you know nothing of it as yet. We love because God first loved us.
We do not have to achieve a name for ourselves, we were given one before we had done anything to earn it. The One who is Love looks at each one of us and names us Beloved.
April Fiet is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.
Thank you for this insightful reading of Genesis 11. We are accustomed to reading both Genesis 11 and 3 as reflections on the sin of pride–wanting to be like God. But perhaps, as you suggest, pride is a symptom of a problem that lies deeper in the soul, what we sometimes call shame, although I am not sure that is exactly the right word. All creatures sense their dependency on God and the gifts of the created order. This sense of dependency can/should open our hearts to God and to a life marked by trust and thanksgiving. Or, it can lead to feelings that we are inadequate, not good enough. In such a state, we live a life of fear, and we strive to secure our own lives, as you say, to build our towers of Babel.
When we invert that good created order, and insist on dependency upon ourselves rather than on God, those feelings of shame or inadequacy come bubbling right to the surface. It is truly an act of grace that God scatters the people from their fruitless endeavors. That would be a wonderful prayer for me to commit to for a time: “O Lord, scatter and confuse my efforts so that I might abandon what is fruitless, and instead cling to You.”
Thank you April. I find this interpretation very helful. Even in retirement it’s a good reminder for me.
Thank you <3