I have to admit, when it comes to doing menial and repetitive tasks I tend to look for distractions to temper the burden. For instance, when I work out at the gym or clean my bathroom, I insist on doing these things with the aid of one of my custom playlists. I do this because I get bored. Really bored. If I could, I would listen to music or a Podcast whenever I did any routine or mindless task: rooting out weeds from a yard, folding laundry into uneven squares, washing myself with soap in the shower. I find focused repetition boring and dull. I still manage to get these tasks done — otherwise I wouldn’t be a functioning adult — but when I do them I’m usually distracted. If it’s not music, then in my head I’m trying to solve a problem related to my work or replaying a conversation from earlier that day — usually while doing something mundane like checking for cracked eggs in a carton at the grocery store.
I’ve gotten much better over the years, and now I make it a discipline to do certain things without the relief of external or internal stimulation. I have to make sure I’m intentional about living in the moment—in its total and unflattering fullness—as much as I can.
There is something about the purchasing of a new product that is exciting, and this desire for an experience of “newness” extends well beyond the latest iPhone to all sorts of purchased items and experiences. In fact, compared to purchased items like phones and cars, experiences — vacationing in Oahu, camping at Yellowstone, parasailing off the coast of Miami — may promise a greater and more enjoyable level of “newness.”
A 2014 article from The Atlantic, “Buy Experiences, Not Things,” points to recent studies revealing that “experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions.” The reason for this, the article explains, is because there is an emotional benefit that accrues in the anticipation of an experience that doesn’t for material goods. Experiences also provide a lasting benefit after they occur, since their memory can now elicit positive feelings of nostalgia. Although experiences seem to edge out material things in offering a more meaningful and lasting level of happiness, experience shows we all still fall back into a state of restless pursuit of something new. Continue reading
There is undeniably something beautiful about the thirsting human spirit. Our continued desire to progress and ascend to great heights is commendable, an indelible mark of our image-bearing identity. In athletics, the sciences, literature, art and every other activity under humanity’s domain we as a race seek comprehension, expansion, perfection.
In some cases this quest for more can lead to unimaginable places. I recently came across an article about a diet known as the Bulletproof Diet. Like most other diets, it’s somewhat ascetic with its demands—eliminating grains, sugars and other staples from the standard American diet—with the aim of bettering health, shape, and fitness. Yet, unlike other diets, this one places great focus on maximizing mental capacity by removing hindering “toxins.”
This is all good and well. If you can safely increase your mental capacity through a certain diet, for example, then go right on ahead. We have an obligation to take care of our bodies and to ensure they are healthy. And like an athlete who trains with diligence and discipline, there is a spiritual dimension to catapulting the body to its greatest potential as a way of glorifying its masterful Creator.
A couple times a week I run along a small bay that neighbors my house. In the early mornings, if I’m able to get out at that time, I’m always struck by the stillness of that stretch of mirrored silver. The bay’s anchored tranquility brings me a sense of peace if I only take a moment or two to look at it. It’s an image that in some way soothes my soul.
In Father Jacques Philippe modest little book, Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart, he calls to mind this metaphor for the soul:
“Consider the surface of a lake, above which the sun is shining. If the surface of the lake is peaceful and tranquil, the sun will be reflected in this lake; and the more peaceful the lake, the more perfectly will it be reflected. If, on the contrary, the surface of the lake is agitated, undulating, then the image of the sun can not be reflected in it.”
It’s a deeply simple, yet profound stroke of insight—our souls can only reflect God’s love and grace if they are calm and delicately moored. The peace promised to us by Jesus Christ two millennia ago only flowers in the soil of a serene heart.
We move and have our being in a material world, a world that in many ways can be estimated, codified and measured. We do certain things with the hope and expectation of being able to tally up tangible results. We seek education and skills in order to procure a rewarding or meaningful job. We work hard so we can give our loved ones good lives. We seek to realize our dreams so we can catapult society beyond the wondrous heights achieved by all those before us. We act in order to produce: to create a visible good to which we can attribute value. In placing such heavy stock in the results and value of our actions, we are able to validate not only what we do, but who we are.
Naturally, such an aim—to instill meaningful change and effect through our actions—is noble and good. We were created to tend to the garden of human flourishing—to use our gifts, abilities and circumstances to bring about God’s kingdom. Let us recall the parable of the talents, where the servant who buried his single talent is condemned for having squandered his responsibility to act, multiply, create.
Though in the form of the material, we are also made of the immaterial—we possess an eternal soul created and gifted to us by God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elucidates the unification of these two aspects—body and soul—to form a single, inimitable nature:
Jesus was especially critical of the Pharisees and scholars of the law—those who should have known the most about God’s truth and will, yet slipped into their own intellectual egoism and blindness. They were given much—privilege, knowledge, honor—but they misused their status to conceal, rather than reveal, God and his plan for human flourishing. Gifted handsomely with the knowledge of how to live rightly, they failed to share it, let alone incorporate it into their own lives.
Francis Bacon is attributed with the familiar saying, “knowledge is power.” I would clarify and contend that knowledge only has the potential for power. And to add even more clarification, a potential for power that can be used for good or ill. There is no doubt that the pursuit of knowledge makes for a good and noble venture. We honor God by exploring the vast realms of science, philosophy, theology and so on—bringing to light the Creator’s subtle fingerprints buried within the canvas of creation. The pursuit of any truth, secular or theological, ultimately leads to the source of all truth: God. Yet, if we call to mind those “blind” and serpentine guardians of Judaic law from Jesus’ time, we are reminded that knowledge in and of itself is hardly enough. Knowledge can lead to love, but it can never be its surrogate.
Steven Garber, a contemporary Christian teacher and writer, wrote a book called Visions of Vocation. In the book he questions the role of knowledge in helping us fulfill our vocations in the world. To Garber, vocation remains a complex and multifaceted term and concept.
I was hanging out at a bar once in college and some guy I didn’t know made a comment about how foolish the idea of God was. He was some smug engineering student, and I remember feeling angry, resentful, and — to be honest—a bit fearful. I mean, who was I — a lowly humanities major — to have a worthwhile opinion on the existence (or lack thereof) of a divine being? Now, let me be clear. At this time in my life, though I believed in God, I wasn’t a faithful Christian. Sure, I would try to get to Mass on Sundays if it wasn’t too much trouble, and I committed myself to prayer — the petition sort mostly — when finals neared or I wanted a girl I liked to work out.
But still, I felt angry and fearful when this guy scoffed at the idea of God, as if he was implying, “Haven’t you heard? Everyone knows God is an illusion of humanity’s collective existential neuroses and fears, dude!” At the time, I wasn’t exactly equipped to engage in a vigorous debate with the fellow. Somehow, contending that God exists because I feel his presence and just know there is something beyond what we see wouldn’t be supremely convincing for a self-proclaimed man of reason. Instead, the conversation veered thanks to the arrival of another round of hearty stouts. And that was that.
The music video for the catchy, but now overplayed song, “Stressed Out,” begins with a disaffected Tyler Joseph, the vocalist for the band Twenty One Pilots, pedaling a tricycle on a vacant, wintered street. Black paint, the color of soot, creeps up his neck and covers his hands. His weary face sits below a red beanie socked on his head. A hypnotic, brooding beat drops in and he starts singing, “I wish I found some better sounds no one’s ever heard/ I wish I had a better voice that sang some better words/ I wish I found some chords in an order that is new.” The litany of “wishes” makes way for the honest, tragic sentiment threaded throughout the entire song: “But now I’m insecure, and I care what people think.”
When Megan Garber, a writer for The Atlantic, first heard the song stuck in traffic she labeled it a “Millennial anthem,” the battle cry (or is it sigh?) for this generation’s worried, jaded and stressed out youth. It may explain why the song has garnered such popularity, peaking at the number two spot in the Billboard Top 100. This angsty, talented and culturally aware duo from Columbus, Ohio struck a chord, or several of them, with a nation of young adults.
As honest as it is, though, it doesn’t offer anything revelatory. A Huffington Post article, “American Teens Are Even More Stressed Than Adults,” detailed how the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found Millennials (aged 18-33) to be the country’s most-stressed generation back in 2013 (although the article goes on to explain how teenagers assumed the top spot the next year). Generally speaking, Americans are more stressed out than they were decades ago, despite the technological, medical and societal improvements since. So the question remains: why are we so stressed out?
A sobering article in The New York Times written by Alain de Botton came out recently, titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” As the seemingly pessimistic title states, the article proposes that no matter who we end up marrying, we will ultimately find ourselves disillusioned, disappointed and if not unhappy, bereft of the unadulterated joy we had hoped for and downright expected. To de Botton, the remedy for such discouraging news is to denude our culture of the pervasive romanticism that has haunted it for the last 250 years: a collective lowering of the marital bar. Then, with such ringing hopes dulled and diluted, we can better go about our business when it comes to the institution of marriage.
There are obviously elements of truth to the article. In the piece, de Botton discusses the inherent impossibility of any one person to fulfill us in the way we so ardently desire:
“The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.”
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