Balance is necessary for a full life

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“Hurry ruins saints as well as poets and artists.” (Thomas Merton)

Last week I posted this quote on my Facebook page. In fact I posted it twice, first in a bigger quote which explained that if we are in a hurry we cannot notice beauty, but since something about it resonated I shared it on its own too. And then the day itself gave me a test to see if I can live up to it myself. I was leaving work and I had to hurry in order to get the bus. There is this one door that gives me trouble locking it; whenever I manage to lock it easily it makes me feel as if I have some superpower. That day was no exception. As I was turning the key and being in a hurry while having this quote hurry ruins you at the back of my mind, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “Ok, let me practice what I preach”. Instead of anxiously trying to lock quickly I relaxed (in my thinking) and very soon after that heard a smooth ‘blip’. “Great. Now run.” I had to run to get the luas (read: the tram) and here in Dublin we have a so called ‘leap card’ that you need to tag on before you enter luas and you need to tag it off when you come out. As I went out, still in a hurry, the machine told me while tagging, error, please try again. Oh you must be kidding me! I laughed. It worked this time and I was on the run again. Then I somehow eased into a different pace; I still walked fast enough but I no longer worried if I made to the bus or not. The day was nice, sunny for a change, and I was able to afford being flexible which bus I would take home. I made it in the end, but the whole thing made me reflect on the validity of that statement. “Hurry ruins saints as well as poets and artists.” (Thomas Merton) What do you mean? And is it really true?

I think what he means is that if you are in a hurry there is a high chance we will not stop to see something beautiful or to help someone in need, and in that sense the hurry ‘ruins us’. A few times when I saw the most magnificent sunsets, I was actually rushing to get somewhere. But I did stop. I am not sure about you, but whenever I can I make a point to pause for a brief moment if I see something beautiful. You can train yourself to do that. Noticing beauty can become an art. After the pause I can always continue to rush in order to get on time to wherever I am going. Same, when we are in a hurry and we are passing by someone who is for example homeless, we may not stop to see if there is anything we can do for them, or at least to say hello, to acknowledge this person. I am sure I must have passed by people like that numerous times, but one time I did stop is still very vivid in my memory. That one time I was probably more blessed than the person was with the encounter. And that is why Merton says that hurry ‘ruins saints’. We cannot grow in holiness if we don’t notice people around us. I know that not everyone who reads me is a Christian, or indeed believer in general. I am grateful that those of you who don’t share this with me still choose to read what I write, and I hope that what I will say next will make sense. Those of us who claim we believe in God and love Him, hurry ruins us if we don’t make time for prayer. If you love someone, you make time for them. With God is the same, with one difference: He loves us more than anyone ever will or can. We are His ‘favourites’, each and every one of us. We cannot grow in relationship with Him, get to know Him better if we don’t make time for prayer.

Having said all this, I think there is another side of the coin to this Merton’s saying. The flip side of the hurry, the other extreme rather, is lethargy. That is not good either. So while there is a value in reducing our anxious thoughts and rushing from place to place, it does not mean that we should understand it as an invitation to embrace lethargy. I think lethargy is quite dangerous. It ruins us in another way, interiorly. In the last few weeks there were days when I didn’t have much to do. I don’t normally have a problem in filling my days with various things, but for some reason this time I did. We need to have our days filled with various activities and with work, it’s healthy. That’s how we are made as humans. While I agree that we are human beings and not human doings, we do need to do things: work, eat, love, write, cook, read, create, socialise, sleep, repeat, add new activities, oh yes and pray. We need to know and experience that we are productive in some way. Merton also says,

“The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. (…) When I act as His instrument my labor cannot become an obstacle to contemplation, even though it may temporarily so occupy my mind that I cannot engage in it while I am actually doing my job. Yet my work itself will purify and pacify my mind and dispose me for contemplation.”

On the other hand, “unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. God may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live. In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural toil.”

In the end, balance is the key for healthy living.

© Iva Beranek (Dublin, 20th April 2015)
Photo by © Iva Beranek

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