The violence of activism, overwork and speed

We are used to thinking of our world as a violent place and used to doing what we can to make it less violent. But there is a kind of pervasive violence that we either don’t notice or feel hopeless about – a violence that Thomas Merton (1966) says is particularly lethal. He calls it the “violence of activism and overwork“, the “rush and pressure of modern life“, “allowing oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything.” It is a violence that we often don’t notice unless we take a step away from our regular routine, something many of my K-12 colleagues are doing as they are enjoying spring break. This posting is dedicated to them and to all others who find themselves easily succumbing.

To easily succumb means that we aren’t fighting very hard to resist this violence. There are probably a lot of reasons for this – our protestant work ethic culture, our focus on visible results, our understanding of identity as wrapped up in what we do rather than who we are…. We might even believe that we are sacrificing ourselves for the good of others. We all have a “messiah complex” to a certain degree. What we often don’t realize is that the violence of this activism, overwork and speed isn’t just a violence that we suffer – our work suffers and the people around us suffer. We are not sacrificing ourselves at the altar of progress and work for anything that is truly life giving. Merton says that “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.” (p. 73) We may be successful at rearranging our little worlds, but we won’t be successful at actually changing our world. Someone once said that only people of Spirit actually change the world – people who have the one thing necessary, people who take the time to clothe all that they do with reverence, gentleness, patience and care, people who remember that only God knows what will prosper (Eccl 11:6), that only the things God does shall be forever (Eccl 2:14), people who begin each day remembering God and letting His brightness shine upon the works of our hands (Ps. 89), people who ask God to help them refuse to succumb to the pervasive violence of our time.

This violence seems particularly fierce in the helping professions. We know we are succumbing when we realize we aren’t even seeing the people in front of us anymore, when the people around us become a means to an end we perceive as more important than being fully present to them. St. Porphyrios tells a story about a pediatrician who was supervising an intern. The pediatrician was concerned about the way the intern was interacting with patients and admonishes him for being too busy to do the spiritual work necessary to truly help. “Listen to what I have to say to you. Every time you examine a child you should offer a fervent prayer with love. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on your servant’…God has sent a precious little soul into your hands…place your hand on their heads…Do all these things spiritually and in secret…The routine is getting to you and you are forgetting.” St. Porphyrios also encouraged educators to pray all the way to school and to enter every school as if it were a church.

To remember the precious souls given into our hands, to remember our need for God’s help, to remember that our work is impacting souls – this is good advice. The violence of activism, overwork and speed can’t happen when we are aware of the sacredness of each moment, when we “take off our shoes” and turn away from the well-worn and dusty path to see the life we normally ignore.

We all let the routine get to us. We all suffer as a result. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we all breathed a lot more, if communion, beauty, and joy were more important than speed, busyness, measurable change and progress. I think we wouldn’t be living our lives as if we were “thrown stones” as one wise person said about us busy ones. And our students? “Neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Merton, T. (1966). Conjectures of a guilty bystander. Doubleday.

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