Self pity alert/justification: I don't write this to vent, or to be heard with regards to the struggles I face as a person who has a vision and has been blessed to realize that vision thanks to countless peoples' generosity, good will, and support in nearly every way. I am blessed to have this mission become a reality. That said, a blessed life is not a life without struggle. The hardest, most challenging experiences in life often reap the greatest fulfillment. Struggle is therefore not a bad thing, it is a necessary process, a blessing that deepens us (just as the knife is a blessing to the wood in a carving...ha!) To speak of struggle is not to ask for sympathy. It is to process and refine the way I react to stress. Stress is not something we will ever grow out of, or work our way out of. Stress, struggle, strife are our companions in life. Our teachers (if only they would teach at regular hours!) For evidence to this end, watch the following video describing this concept, but in an in-depth way, and from a larger world view. It is about how challenges allow us to feel empathy and how empathy is essentially what binds everything together from people to animals to trees and stuff.
Watch the video here:
So here I am reading my book at 2am in order to keep my mind occupied so that my heart rate will fall and I can finally sleep. I crack open a book of assorted essays by Thomas Merton, one of my favorite intellectuals of the 20th century, called, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Typically each essay is not longer than a couple pages. Often there is simply a paragraph describing some thought he was working through in a moment and no more. Chapters are broken up by general theme with little delineation between specific essays. So for instance, if you find an essay you really like you have to mark it, rip it out of the book, or something extreme, otherwise finding it again can be nearly impossible. What I randomly flipped to was profoundly relevant in my moment of anxiety induced sleeplessness. It begins:
"A great deal of virtue and piety is simply the easy price we pay in order to justify a life that is essentially trifling. Nothing is so cheap as the evasion purchased by just enough good conduct to make one pass as a "serious person."
A great deal of libertinism, vice, and rebellion is in the end much the same thing. It does not "justify" trifling, but nevertheless expresses impotence and refusal to do anything else. The fact that the rebellion is an implicit criticism of the shallow and the respectable proves absolutely nothing.
And when you come to look more deeply into man's present condition you find that many forms of "seriousness" and "achievement" come to this in the end. In our society, a society of business rooted in puritanism, based on a pseudo-ethic of industriousness and thrift, to be rewarded by comfort, pleasure, and a good bank account, the myth of work is thought to justify an existence that is essentially meaningless and futile. There is, then, a great deal of busy-ness as people invent things to do when in fact there is very little to be done. Yet we are overwhelmed with jobs, duties, tasks, assignments, "missions" of every kind. At every moment we are sent north, south, east, and west by the angels of business and art, poetry and politics, science and war, to the four corners of the universe to decide something, to sign something, to buy and sell. We fly in all directions to sell ourselves, thus justifying the absolute nothingness of our lives. The more we seem to accomplish, the harder it becomes to really dissimulate our trifling, and the only thing that saves us is the common conspiracy not to advert to what is really going on...No matter how empty our lives become, we are always at least convinced that something is happening because, indeed, as we so often complain, too much is happening. There is so much to be done that we don not have time to live...such is the cliche.
But it is precisely this idea that a serious life demands "time to live" that is the root of our trifling.
In reality, what we want is time in which to trifle and vegetate without feeling guilty about it. But because we do not try it, we precipitate ourselves into another kind of trifling: that which is not idle, but dissimulated as action."
(btw - I couldn't find the entire excerpt online, but here is a link to a google preview of most of this piece...from there you can buy the book too: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
Other than the obvious coincidence of not being able to sleep due to the stress related to feeling overwhelmed by the endless duties of my work, and then reading this as the first essay I flipped to (out of hundreds of options), there is another thing I am left considering. While he comes to the conclusion that what we really want is "time to trifle and vegetate without feeling guilty about it", I also take away another thought: This constant attempt to fill idle time with work and "to do lists" undermines our most important work as people which is to love one another, to be present and open for relationship, to be empathetic, to invest in people, to seek out inspiration and to inspire. This work is not one sided, as Proverbs 27:17 says, "as iron sharpens iron, so one man another". Indeed our to-do list's can be directly counter to this aim of connecting... of love.
Ultimately, when I am sleepless and consumed with stress sometimes I need to buckle down and finish my to-do lists. Life is work after all. However, I am left with this question: how can I make sure my work is not taking away from the relationships I need in my life? I don't think it is a 12 step process. I don't think organizational plans will help (though I do subscribe to GTD, and have systems I follow). The work will never cease. Stress will only intensify with life (more work, kids, more death, more needs, etc.) I will only be in relationship with people to the extent I am willing to choose to do so. The depth of those relationships will be the result of my openness, my vulnerability, and my intent. It begins with a choice, not another "to do" item. A simple choice, made over and over again, that places an investment in relationship over concerns about stress. It won't help me sleep better, but perhaps it will help me become a better husband, boss, and friend.