THE CONTEMPORARY VIOLENCE OF OVERWORK by Paula Gamble-Grant
“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence
to which the idealist most easily succumbs:
activism and overwork.
The rush and pressure of modern life are a form,
perhaps the most common form,
of its innate violence.
To allow 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,
is to succumb to violence.
The frenzy of our activism
our work for peace.
It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.
It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work,
because it kills the root of inner wisdom
which makes work fruitful.”
~ Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
This quote, written by Thomas Merton half a century ago, seems even more true today. I don’t know about you but I am a “guilty” bystander. I, like most other people I know, complain of being too busy, taking on too many projects and wanting to help everyone in everything. Merton labels this as an “innate violence” and as a practice that neutralizes our efforts toward peace.
So what’s the antidote to this ongoing frenzy?
Pause…breathe deeply…practice your “no” muscle.
Today I offer you a way to do all three in the same moment:
This week, as you transition from one place to the next and as you “take a seat” (e.g. in your car, down the hall to a toilet, at your desk, at the kitchen table, on the ground with your pets or children) practice the following:
• pause for one minute - knowing there’s nothing in this space that you need to solve, fix or figure anything out.
• breathe deeply - place your hand on your heart and breathe in a long, 5 count breath, pause at the top, then slowly release it to another 5 counts. Repeat this throughout the minute, perhaps even uttering the breath prayer below:
• Inhale: Make me
• Exhale: An instrument of Your Peace
• practice your “no” muscle - this very act of pausing in your transitions and breathing deeply is you saying “no.” It’s you choosing to say no to worry, no to just trying to crank things out, no to cluttering your soul with other voices and demands just for this one minute.
This simple practice may not seem like a big effort towards world peace. But, Zechariah reminded us, “Do not despise the small things, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin…” (4.10). Each time you choose to pause, breathe deeply and say “no” - even if only for a moment - you are beginning and continuing the work of peace. May we all carry the peace-filled heart and footsteps of Francis into our world today.
Let us know how this practice is helping you to cultivate peace in your own heart and life today.