I recently read this poem called “Men Untrained to Comfort” by Wendell Berry. It made me think about how self sparing our society has become, and how important it is to instead spend oneself in work and play to live a life well.
Jane Addams described the life of ease and idleness which was the fate of most of her class of women as comparable to eating a sweet pastry before breakfast every morning. In our society, that same life is available to people of all walks of life. In Addams time, women of a wealthy class were condemned to spending their lives in embroidery, “visiting” and other activities which she did not view as important. But now, people spend their leisure time, of which most of us have 5 or 6 hours per day, in front of the television, numbing our brains and watching other people live. Just like eating that sweet pastry before breakfast, it dulls the appetite with unwholesome food and leaves a feeling of inertia and lack of energy.
What, then, would be like a wholesome breakfast that would energize us for the work at hand? For our family, we have found that physical activity such as running or hiking, leaves us energized to work hard at other tasks. During the time we are running, the mind “free-wheels” relaxing and brainstorming so that ideas flow freely. Often, I come home from a run with all sorts of new creative ideas, and the energy to pursue them. While that may seem counter-intuitive, ask almost any runner and they will tell you the same. The run actually leaves them with more physical energy. Hiking does the same thing to a greater extent because being out in nature is rejuvenating in itself, and compounded with the extra physical activity, leads to more energy.
Just as many people in our society do not have an appetite for a breakfast of oatmeal, but would gladly have a donut and coffee on their way to work, it requires self discipline to eat our “wholesome breakfast” of physical activity. When the alarm rings to roll us out of bed, we have to require of ourselves to get out of bed. But just as a wholesome breakfast is not enough to carry you through the day, continued self-exertion is at the heart of a happy life. Of course it takes effort to choose a task and complete it, but the reward is a feeling of satisfaction that is not available in any other way.
What motivates me to self-exertion is thinking about the end of my life. I think about whether I will be glad to think back on having watched several documentaries about summiting Everest, or if I would rather think about the time I climbed the mountain closest to my home. Will I be happy to remember the sitcoms that I watched, or would it be better to look back on quilts that I made for my children. I am convinced that only a life of action will leave me fulfilled at the end. I imagine a grandchild asking me “What did you do?” and I want to have DONE something.
Are you a stay at home mom? Lucky you! Instead of letting the television keep you company and sap your strength and energy, why not choose some extra task you can do with your children today? Why not make cookies for Daddy when he comes home from work? Take the time to play with your children at a park. Get every room in the house cleaned. Choose a difficult book to read for your own education, read it sitting at the table and taking notes. Work hard!
Are you a working mom? I know you come home tired from work. But try out the energy building qualities of exertion. Get started on a task that won’t take too long, and you will find when you have finished, that you have energy to go on to another task. Set a timer and wash dishes for twenty minutes. Iron 4 shirts. Fold one load of laundry.
How much better to spend our time working hard at something! Jane Addams started Hull House and devoted her life to social reform. While this may not be an option we would desire to pursue, could we find an activity to work hard at and really give meaning to our lives? Instead of watching others act, could we act ourselves?