Peacefully idle, blissfully worn out

by | March 16, 2015

You can know with certainty that you have discovered a profound truth when you smack into a paradox.

Consider two quotes, the first from Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Extreme busyness…is a symptom of deficient vitality. It is no good speaking to such folk: they can not be idle, their nature is not generous enough.”

…and the second from George Bernard Shaw:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

So which one is correct? Are we to be generously idle, or serviceably worn out?

The answer is yes. The paradox is resolved when we understand the context.

I ask you: Typically, when we are extremely busy, what is it that occupies our time, energy, and attention?

I’ll let William Wordsworth chime in:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…”

Keeping up with the Joneses. Climbing the corporate ladder. New and improved. 12 months same as cash. Limited time only.

You know the drill. We are so busy consuming, accumulating, and accomplishing that we rarely have time for truly living. We are so worn out by the stress induced by you-can-never-be-good-enough commercial propaganda that we have no energy left with which to wear ourselves out in the service of others.

When was the last time you took a leisurely walk in the middle of the day to consider the lilies of the field, to contemplate the trajectory of your life?

How much time have you spent earning money to buy Christmas presents for your children, compared with the time you actually spend with your children? Which do you think they value more?

Have you ever wondered how the Puritan work ethic has been distorted into little more than a veneer for selfishness? When did the value of hard work transcend the ethic of thoughtful service?

I’m not pointing any fingers, mind you. I get caught up in busyness like everyone else.

But I pause now to ponder on how cramming my life full will leave me feeling empty in the end.

A tragic fate, that — to look back on a life utterly squandered by zealous industriousness.

I don’t know about you, but I want to truly live. I want to breathe. I want to take in the moment and marvel at spring buds sprouting and my children giggling.

I want to stop waiting for the next big thing and experience the incomprehensible majesty of the now.

I want to think less of what I want and more on what I can give. I want to complain less and give thanks more.

I want my Vision Board crammed full not with fancy material trinkets, but with the yearning eyes of orphans, the satisfied smiles of well-fed children.

I want to pause more from work and be more eager to serve. I want to forget about myself and my petty desires to find my true self in magnanimous desires for the welfare of others.

I like how Viktor Frankl put it:

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself…self-actualization is only possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

I wonder: Do we have to wait until our deathbeds to realize there’s a world of difference between busyness and fulfillment?

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