*This is the first in a two-part series on Being Intentional with our Time.
“If the people about you are carrying on their business or their benevolence at a pace which drains the life out of you, resolutely take a slower pace; be called a laggard, make less money, accomplish less work than they, but be what you were meant to be. You have your natural limit of power as much as an engine — ten horse-power, or twenty, or a hundred. You are fit to do certain kinds of work, and you need a certain kind and amount of fuel, and a certain kind of handling.” ~George S. Merriam
Merriam’s exhortation for us to resist the frantic hurry of life to “be what what [we] are meant to be” drives to the heart of our culture’s epidemic of stress and anxiety. I think a good deal of our persistent stress, anxiety, and irritability, anger even, must derive from knowing, moment to moment, that we are not “be[ing] what [we are] meant to be.” We’re busy all right. We are continually caught in a flurry of frenetic activity. We seem to be highly productive and maybe even important. But inside we sense that we are dropping the ball on some part of our calling or are shirking fundamental, fulfilling aspects of our identity. I remember reading some wisdom, from a source I unfortunately cannot recall, that amounted to this: Stress sometimes happens when we are doing too many of the wrong things. We call it “stress” when we’re too busy with things that sap our joy and fulfillment, and we call it “fun” or “play” when we’re busy with work that satisfies us.
It is no wonder that we struggle to prioritize in a culture drowning in a digital quagmire. There is simply no end to the constant stimulation and the urgency of voices that insist that we spend our time doing more, being more, achieving more. But as Merriam sagely explains, we each are designed to take a certain kind of fuel for our optimal functioning, and if we are not attending to that, many systems will start to malfunction. Our purpose will not be adequately realized. We will feel sad, desperate, overwrought. Perhaps this is what Thoreau meant when he said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (Walden). Many of us are quietly, desperately losing hold of what we are meant to be.
The good news is that, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” This is a quotation most often attributed to Victorian author, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross), but alas, there is no evidence to back up the connection between Eliot and this remark. Nevertheless, the power of the remark remains. And George Merriam’s words also provide encouragement to those of us who might right now be regretting how we have been apportioning our time. His observations imply that our time and purpose incompatibility is not an insurmountable crisis; it is a matter of fuel. Following Merriam’s metaphor to an instructive conclusion conveys that we can get back to our calling and fundamental parts of ourselves by attending to the fuel needed to support those paths. When we are providing optimal fuel to ourselves: whether that is ample time, rest, creative or inspirational opportunities, or setting up adequate social support, we feel less stress, and we are able to function at maximum capacity. We are able to bring our best to doing the right things.
Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way that artists need ample doses of solitude if they are to produce art. In a passage entitled, “The Virtue Trap,” she argues:
An artist must have downtime, time to do nothing. Defending our right to such time takes courage, conviction, and resiliency. Such time, space, and quiet will strike our family and friends as a withdrawal from them. It is. For an artist, withdrawal is necessary. Without it, the artist in us feels vexed, angry, out of sorts. If such deprivation continues, our artist becomes sullen, depressed, hostile. We eventually became like cornered animals, snarling at our family and friends to leave us alone and stop making unreasonable demands (96).
That dissatisfied, snarling beast that rears up in us, we often just call “being busy,” or “being stressed,” or “not having enough time.” All of those conditions might be true, but the deeper issue is that we are not attending to the tug of our souls that urges us to come away for a while from the clamor and to do what we were designed to do. Toni Morrison puts it this way (as quoted in The Artist’s Way, 97), “We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for that.” What if we moved our creative work up a few notches on our priority list? Would we feel more fulfilled? Would we be better parents, better employees, better humans for it?
Ultimately, Merriam’s words should help us to breathe easier in the midst of a harried world. He tells us that we don’t have to do it all. Our body and our being is a sophisticated system requiring certain kinds of fuel and not others. We can grow in our understanding of what fuel harms us and what fuel helps us. We can learn to listen to the inner voice that tells us what we need.
What kind of fuel does your exquisite, uniquely designed being need in order to function at maximum capacity? What do you require if you are to do what you are meant to do? Make a list of basic requirements. Which of these needs can you begin to prioritize today? This week? This month? Begin to emphasize the call of your soul, and watch the impact it has on your stress levels and sense of well being.