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There is a story about a young boy who lived during the Middle Ages. As he walked down a dirt road, he came across a man who was hard at work with a hammer and chisel pounding away at a large stone. Sweat was pouring from his brow. He was angry and frustrated. “What are you doing?” asked the boy. “I’m shaping this darn stone!” muttered the man.
The boy walked a ways further down the road and met another man doing the same thing – hammering and chiseling away at a stone. But this man seemed neither angry or happy. He simply chiseled away. “What are you doing?” the boy asked. “I’m shaping this stone for a building.” answered the man dully.
About another mile down this road, the boy came across a third man engaged in the same work – hammering and chiseling away at a very large stone. This man, though, was whistling and smiling as he labored. He too was sweating but he looked up brightly and greeted the boy with a smile. “What are you doing?” the boy asked. “I’m shaping this stone to be part of a cathedral!” the man happily replied.
This fable has been told and retold as a lesson about attitudes toward work. It’s been an obvious truth since the dawn of humanity that we must work to survive. In more primitive economies, humans could survive by hunting, gathering and making simple necessities – crude tools, baskets and clothing. Survival was the sole motivation for work. But as cultures advanced and as humans began to work at jobs for which there was no direct link to survival, tasks needed to offer more emotional and psychological meaning. Do we slog away in life chipping away at rocks, or do we work to build inspiring legacies that make the world better?
How we think about work is important, but for much of human history we could also be inspired simply by what we did: as a mason, a farmer, a trader. We built houses and factories. We grew food. We enabled human commerce. We changed the world. Both the work and the employer gave us our identity. This was true even for many of our grandparents and parents – a career was an identity not just by the company we worked for but by the transformational nature of the work. Companies saw themselves as social agents of change and their employees were partners in that effort who, with hard work, were rewarded with higher pay, career advancement and meaning.
There was an implicit understanding between employer and employee – both were joined in common cause to help change the world for the better. IBM employees were building the digital revolution that would change how people live. Proctor and Gamble employees produced goods that made household tasks easier and less time consuming – thus freeing particularly women to engage in work outside the home. Work could meet survival needs, allow the purchase of a few luxuries and give a person the kind of personal fulfillment that comes from having purpose.
Because of technology, global competition and simple greed, much of that has changed. Work has often reverted to be like more primitive tasks humans used to do – repetitious labor for which we gain the means to survive but which often lack deep fulfillment. In many cases, people no longer work to help change the world. They work in order to survive at the level of meeting basic needs.
But as the fable that I related implies, it is essential for our well-being to be able to think about our work and our time in helpful ways. If our purpose in life is to make the world a better place, then our work life ought to reflect that goal. So too must our leisure time and personal time. Our lives ought to be simplified to meet that one overall life purpose – does what I do with my time, either directly or indirectly, enable my life mission? In very simple terms, will all of the time I spend help build a better world?
That leads me to my theme for this month – to find simplicity in life such that it is reduced to the basic questions we face. Today’s topic: to stay productive but not busy. Next Sunday: to eliminate the kinds of thoughts and attitudes that divert and distract us – worries, fears, doubts, anger – and to find instead the proverbial “silver lining.” Finally, in two weeks: how to surround ourselves only with the so-called “right people” – those who uplift us, encourage us and love us in ways that help us to maximize our potential and our purpose.
The sayings of Buddha, which are often condensed approximations of his more complex writings, indicate that all of existence is governed by impermanence – nothing lasts as it is. As humans, we have no control over impermanence and its five main forces – growing old, getting a disease, dying, decaying and, finally, changing into different forms of matter. Our only human answer to these forces of impermanence, according to the Buddha, is to search for and find inner peace and to ultimately, hopefully, find a state of enlightened Nirvana. Since most of the forces of impermanence involve the constant passing of time, we soon learn we cannot stop it. We hate its expenditure. We fight against it. But time, whatever such a concept is, rolls inexorably onward.
As the Buddha said, “Life is swept along, next to nothing its span. For one swept to old age, no shelters exist. Perceiving danger in death, one should drop the world’s bait and look for peace.” He goes on to say that such peace does not mean inaction but rather serene acceptance. In doing so, one is able to understand the implications of inaction and wasting time. The Buddha concluded, “Whatever you are doing now may be your last act on earth. It may very well be your last battle. Why the hesitation to change?”
Ultimately, we must wisely use the time we have. Even this hour we spend every Sunday morning – we must ask, “does it redeem its use such that not only are we better off but are the areas of life we influence better off because of our time spent here?” If we cannot usually answer “yes”, then we ought to let go and move to a usage of time that truly fulfills a life purpose.
This thought echoes that found in the Christian Bible. Paul exhorts followers in one of the churches he founded to “redeem the time” they used. In other words, time will be spent no matter what we do with it. But if we redeem it, we will have exchanged it for something valuable. Are we caught in endless cycles of time use that sap our spiritual and emotional energy, that bore us, that diminish us in anger, envy, depression or worry?
I would often get upset when my girls were sometimes assigned homework that seemed, at least to me, to be repetitious busywork – designed not to stimulate learning as much as to bludgeon to death an already learned concept. There was little or no creativity needed to do the work. No thinking. No real learning. No growth.
I can find myself often doing similar things as an adult – like reading a contemporary pulp novel that entertains but does not enlighten. Or I’ll watch, out of weird fascination, some mind numbing infomercial for which I have no interest in the product, or I’ll aimlessly use my iPad to surf the internet. Or, as is my occasional downfall, I’ll spend hours worrying about some small event or something negative said to me by another. Sadly, there are too many hours of time that I have spent wastefully. In doing so, I have neglected my purpose in life.
But how do we stay focused on using the time we have productively? About three years ago I encouraged in one of my messages that every person write a mission statement for their lives. If you did not hear that message or just ignored me, I encourage you to do this exercise – to write a personal life mission statement. What are the things most important to you and to the legacy you will leave behind? What is it that you want to define how you spend your time? What are your specific talents and passions that you want to use and enlarge?
In that previous message, I spoke about 83 year old Gene Sharp who decided, after a life of interest in non-violence, to write a 72 page manifesto on ways to actually practice non-violent confrontation. His booklet was widely reprinted and used in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions – sparking creative thinking in those movements on how to speak and act without physical or verbal violence. I also spoke about Muhammad Yunis and Grameen Bank, two low-level bureaucrats from Bangladesh who yearned to create real change for the people they served. They founded the mico-loan movement that has helped over 90 million people buy farms or start small businesses in mostly third world nations. They recently won the Nobel Prize in economics for their work.
In that Sunday message, I asked you to do this exercise at home and then display your written personal mission statement someplace that you will often see – posted as the opening page on your computer or on a paper taped to your bathroom mirror. My personal mission statement, as I recited it to you, was and still is: “To live self-aware and with purpose; to practice compassion, empathy and humility; to embrace life-enriching joy in what I do; to encourage spiritual beauty in myself and in others; to leave this world in peace.”
One person e-mailed me after that Sunday message saying that he or she did not have a purpose in life. One lived. One worked. One made a family. One grows old. And then one dies. That’s the sum total of human purpose.
But this person, on reflection, realized he or she had real purpose and had, in truth, been living out that purpose even without consciously realizing it. By writing down a mission statement, he or she could now use time and resources to even better accomplish a life purpose.
If we are to be productive in our use of time, and not just busy, having a life mission statement or purpose is a must. It is like having a destination in mind when we set out on a trip. Without knowing where we want to go, how will we ever truly get anywhere? The same holds true in life. Where is it that we are going?
By establishing a mission statement, we can then order our lives in such a way that meets our mission. Every day, for instance, if we want to be productive in our use of time, we should determine one or two things we can do that directly speaks to our mission – to read an article or book pertinent to our passion, to volunteer in some way that teaches or enlarges our skill for others, to find time to reflect and deeply think about our life goals, to look for small ways in our career work that will directly add to our life mission – to learn something new, to attempt a task never done before, to acquire or grow the attitudes necessary for our mission. There are few jobs from which we cannot derive meaning and purpose – if we see them in the larger light of our purpose. Are we chipping away at a stone just to survive or are we working, learning, planning for a Cathedral?
Productivity experts advise other more practical ways to remain productive in our use of time:
to refuse to be a slave to or addict of technology;
to only single task and forget the idea that multi-tasking is good;
to set firm boundaries by gently but firmly telling ourselves, others and even our bosses when tasks are trivial and do not fulfill a larger purpose to improve the world;
to practice mindfulness by focusing only on the here and now – the present – and thus refusing to engage in remorse over the past or worry about the future;
to reframe mundane tasks like walking a dog in order to use them for something better – for instance to meditate or reflect;
and, finally, to work way ahead of schedule so that we are not rushed or otherwise distracted.
When we simplify anything in life, we reduce it to its most essential elements and practices. This must be the same with our lives. Since our lives are counted by time, we must reduce our expenditure of it only to what is most essential. None of us are billionaires when it comes to the amount of time we have. By letting go of the useless, wasteful and empty, we can instead fill our time with what is uplifting, meaningful and good. That does not mean we become Puritan like workaholics who see virtue only in hard physical labor. Ease, meditation and relaxation have an important role to play by adding to our energy levels.
Ultimately, however, we live for a reason. No matter who or what we believe created us, there exists an implicit purpose to our existence. Mere survival is not it. Our species must go on and thrive. All creation must be preserved and enlarged. Progress and evolution must march onward toward the goal of better lives for all people and all creatures. If heaven on earth will never truly be achieved, we can at least help humanity move closer to that ideal. That is the overall human purpose and we must each then find our individual purpose that fits within the larger goal.
That is the key, therefore, to getting out of a rut of mindless work and empty busy-ness. If we remember that we are are about helping to build something greater than ourselves – we will then find more ways to productively spend our time. And our lives will be simpler and less confused if we stay focused on that mission. What is your passion? What is the legacy you want to leave behind? What symbolic Cathedral do you hope to help build? Don’t stop thinking, planning, working toward that goal. Our life mission must last until our very last breath.
Because of our brains, souls and spiritual way of thinking, humans have the unique duty, yes the duty, to continuously improve the world. Alone among all creatures, we have that ability and that responsibility. None should live without purpose. We must redeem our time. We must build our Cathedral and, in doing so, find our peace and joy.
I wish you all a life of purpose!