Letters to Children: Doing Nothing
In Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus wrote: “In the beginning God created Adam, not because he needed man, but because he wanted to have someone on whom to bestow his blessings.”
This is not a unique idea—it may have been in Irenaeus’ time, since he was one of the earliest Christian thinkers, but many great thinkers have pointed out the same thing. God does not need us. And because we are not needed, we are unnecessary, which is only a small step removed from saying we’re not important.
Now, you need to understand what I’m saying here. There are levels of importance. You are important at many levels. You were always important (and dear) to me; you are important and dear to your mother; and to each other. You are also important to God. You can make an enormous difference to many people.
But you are no important in the sense that the world revolves around you. This world doesn’t need you and God doesn’t need you. Both can use you and both want you. But neither needs you; you are, in this sense, superfluous. That’s just the way it is.
That’s not a bad thing. Always remember this: If that’s just the way it is, then it must be good. God makes all things. Because he is perfect and good, everything he makes must be good. Therefore, if something is a certain way (and assuming it didn’t get to be that way due to sin), then it is good that it is that way.
So you are superfluous. And it is good that you are superfluous. Based on the previous paragraph, that’s a good and sound philosophical premise.
Now, we need to apply that philosophical premise to real life. Here are two practical conclusions we can draw from it:
1. Go back to Saint Irenaeus’ words: God wanted “someone on whom to bestow his blessings.” If these words are true (and they are), then the first thing to realize is that you are meant to be a receiver; you are meant to receive God’s blessings. If you are a receiver, then you need to act like a receiver.
Now think about all the Christmas celebrations we had together. When you opened up a present, what did your mother and I always tell you to do? We told you to say “thank you.” It is the natural and proper response when someone gives you a present.
Likewise, it is the natural and proper response to your situation on earth. You are a receiver and you constantly receive blessings. Every moment you’re alive, you are receiving gifts from God—the gift of existence, the gift of health, the gift of sight and smell and sound, the gift of a beautiful world, the gift of other people. No wonder St. Paul says in his letters to the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing: you are blessed without ceasing—receiving presents without ceasing—so you ought to say thanks without ceasing.
2. If you are not necessary, you are superfluous and ought to behave that way. You are also important at many levels, so you need to behave like an important being—you must, for example, earn a living for your own family and you must preserve the dignity as God’s highest creature. BUT you must realize that you are superfluous and, therefore, you should show a certain level of frivolity, too.
You cannot take yourself and your pursuits too seriously. You do not need to have a purpose for everything you do.
I went through a span of life where I pretty much analyzed and pulverized everything that wasn’t practical. If something didn’t have a purpose, I snarled at it. I remember one summer I was at Sandcrest (Grandma and Grandpa’s cottage on Lake Huron, just south of Alpena, Michigan). Your uncles and I had been going up there for thirty years. Every time we went up, either together or separately, we spent a few hours re-directing the Cranberry Creek away from our beach, piling sand to cut off the creek from turning onto our land and digging a separate canal to direct it straight into Lake Huron. The job always started unambitiously—digging a little trench with the heel of our foot, throwing a few handfuls of sand across the creek—but always grew into a big undertaking—shovels, logs, beseeching others to come lend us a hand with the all-important job. After we were done, our beach would start to dry out and be playable within a day or two, though the creek would always cut back across eventually (sometimes overnight if a storm came).
One Saturday, I pointed this out. I was about 22 years old. My brothers were working on it, and I said something like, “Why are you bothering with this? We’re leaving tomorrow. By the time anyone comes back up here, the creek will have cut back across our land.”
Your uncles just kinda shrugged. Uncle Ron said something like, “Because we’ve always done it.” They looked a little embarrassed and I felt like the real intellectual heavyweight.
I was a nit-wit. Re-directing Cranberry Creek is a type of play and it doesn’t need a purpose. You might as well as ask the sun why he shines. He doesn’t need to explain himself to you. He shines because God made him that way. No one needs to explain play to us. We play because God made us that way. We are, remember, unnecessary, superfluous. Frivolity is a natural reaction to this superfluous status, just as thanksgiving is the natural reaction to our status as receiving beings.
If you can’t see a purpose to something, children, do it—unless, of course, it’s sinful. You have duties in life, of course, and you must meet them and therefore many of the things you do in life will have a set purpose. But everything you do shouldn’t have a set purpose.
Let me give you a few examples. These are things you should do, but not for any set purpose.
Walking. You may remember that your mother and I walked a lot for exercise. We would walk about one mile every fifteen minutes (that’s a pretty good pace). But walking should also be undertaken without the set purpose of getting exercise. Just walk around and look at things, whether it be in your backyard or in a neighboring park or, if you have the blessing, in a countryside.
Beer Drinking. This was one of my favorites. Unlike walking (which can serve a set purpose as well as serve our status as frivolous human beings), beer drinking must never be undertaken with a set purpose. Avoid these: drinking to get drunk; drinking to escape your problems; drinking in order to help get clients or customers. Just drink because it’s fun. (For an article on the goodness of beer drinking, see my article in Gilbert!, June 1999, p. 16.)
Sitting Around and Doing Nothing. Chesterton once referred to “the most precious, the most consoling, the most pure and holy, the noble habit of doing nothing at all.” Paradoxically, Chesterton also pointed out that this habit of doing nothing at all is the pre-requisite to doing the greatest things of all—like engaging in philosophy. But the real point is: you can’t undertake doing nothing with a set purpose. A set purpose may sprout from it, but you can’t go into it with the purpose in mind or you won’t be doing nothing at all. (See my article in Gilbert!, July/August 1999, p. 28.)
Reading. I remember telling someone about a wine column I had read in The Wall Street Journal. I asked if he had read it and he said, “No. I’m a meat and potatoes reader. I don’t read that superfluous stuff.” His approach to reading paralleled my approach to the Cranberry Creek—and it’s every bit as stilted. You will read some things for a set purpose, no doubt, but some things you should read just because they look like fun.
Philosophizing. Just as you shouldn’t spend all your reading time on “meat and potatoes” stuff, you shouldn’t expend all your intellectual energy on the pursuit of career and money. Save your best intellectual power for studying Plato and contemplating life. It won’t earn you more money, but that’s a good thing. As a lawyer, I have often wondered whether I’d be better-off working as a manual laborer. At the end of many days, I’m too mentally exhausted to read or study or write, and I’ve often wondered if a less-mentally rigorous job would be better for this noblest of pursuits. (I don’t know the answer to this, incidentally.)
Spending a year’s worth of wages on perfume and placing it on the feet of a holy man. No comment necessary.Bookmark it: del.icio.us | Reddit | Slashdot | Digg | Facebook | Technorati | Google | StumbleUpon | Window Live | Tailrank | Furl | Netscape | Yahoo | BlinkList
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