When did life get this hectic? Why are we so busy-busy these days? Always on the rush, but still ticking stuff off the "To Do" list far more slowly than we're adding to it.
It's a common feeling that this is all such a new phenomenon. It never used to be like this, we tell ourselves. It's all this modern technology that's to blame. It's this ability to live a 24/7 life – always available – never able to say no – the modern disease of never stopping. If only we could live more simply, more like the way it used to be.
But that is a myth, because the injunction to 'beware the barrenness of a busy life' is not such a modern quote.
It's attributed to Socrates. So, about 400 to 500 years BC, the Athenians were already feeling the constant consumerist pressure of the pursuit of wealth or power. I'm not sure whether it's freeing to realise that "ok, this is an age-old problem, we're not going to solve it either" or just plain depressing that after two and half thousand years we still haven't got the message.
I'm no philosophy student so I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what Socrates might have thought the problem was in ancient Athens, but it takes just a quick look around to see how true it still is in 2017.
There's nothing wrong with being busy.
Building a career that satisfies your soul and serves the world is something we might all aspire to. Providing for your family is a noble cause. However we might feel about our current leaders and the people that hold the reins of power – unless we really do want to go back to subsistence agriculture (no thanks) then the fact is, someone does actually have to do those things, take those responsibilities, make those decisions, and (probably) we'd prefer it to be people who'd studied and worked and understood the world rather than someone who leads a lazily wandering approach to life in general.
So: sometimes we will find ourselves in chop-chop-busy-busy-work-work-bang-bang and sometimes it's ok.
It's not ok when it isn't "sometimes" but is "life". Always. All the time. Relentless.
That's when life becomes barren: when it's all about the doing. When we're forever drawing on our reserves of strength and resilience, and we never stop to just 'stand and stare' as the poet William Henry Davies put it.
Every well runs dry if we do not refill it, or leave it undrawn to recover on its own.
One of my regular walk routes takes me on the riverside path that runs through the heart of our city. Its contours are now contained, its meanders restricted to a now permanent route, its floodplain built on. Another of my routes takes in a Victorian park, updated for the 21st century. Formal gardens, ornate lily ponds, Italianate rotunda, alongside football pitches, a skate park, go kart track and basketball court. Here too there is little wild or untamed.
Both places are owned and tended, kept in check, planted, mown, restrained.
Only nature doesn't know that. Nature does as she pleases. If we slow down enough, it might please us too. I know there are kingfisher hunting along that city river, and fish swimming among the reeds that could take the blue-feathered bird in a single snap if they were so inclined. Willows teach the dance to the silver birch, while the oaks and horse chestnuts throw fruit to the ground in appreciation. Squirrels scamper as the leaves take on their autumn hue and fall softly down.
These are the expected glories. Yet we still need to slow our step to truly notice them: to drink in the colour and the movement.
Then there are the birds. Two in particular on consecutive days filled my well.
By the river an unexpected tap-tap-tap made me pause, stop, and look up to seek him out. Stop. Step. Slowly scanning through the leaves. You hear woodpecker far more often than you see them; knowing that they are officially "common" doesn't make seeing one any less of a thrill for me…finding one in the heart of the city like this doubly so. He spotted me and didn't take flight.
Meanwhile, one my favourite birds is the heron. I love the way they don't so much take off as fall into the air, the grace with which they stalk and strike their prey. Again, common birds wherever there is water…but still one that makes me remember to stop and stare. This one was in the park, sitting on a floating cage in the lily pond. No idea what the cage was really there for, but our visitor clearly felt it was a perch, tailor made for him to preen in the sunlight and contemplate the koi for dinner.
On the river bank, no-one looked up beside me. By the park pond, a student was reading, strollers passed by without a second glance.
If we busy ourselves so ceaselessly with the doing and achieving and getting and performing and, yes, even the giving…if we never stop to look, we will not see that our lives are not in fact barren…they are overflowing with abundance, there is beauty there for the accepting if simply pause occasionally to look for it.
We must pause, and look, and drink deep of the well of nature to refill our own well of spirit and strength. We must do this to nurture ourselves so that we can do our work in the world.
But we must do it also, so that we value the spaces in which nature can lie in wait for us. In a world where the problems are many and the resources inequitably deployed, we need to be clear how important this is. I think that what Socrates meant wasn't just that your life will be barren if you drown in busyness, but also that all of our lives will become barren, the places in which we live them will become barren, if we don't also value and so protect the places in which we can be un-busy…the places we can be still…
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!
OKSubscriptions powered by Strikingly