Almost 50 years ago, Thomas Merton, a wild young man turned hermetic Catholic monk, wrote these astonishng words. The full quote is below, and really shows how extreme busyness can become a kind of violence. 

“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 neutralizes 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.” *

Merton describes violence against the self: to not rest and take gentle care, reflect, listen to our own inner wisdom. The pressure to perform, to live up to too high a standard, or some generalized societal pressure, the judgment that we are not enough if we don’t do something, are violent because they take us away from being our true self.

The question is how not to fall into that endless activism with all the demands of making a living, taking care of the many details of daily life…

What’s a path to balance?

We find that sometimes, it just takes seeing what happens if we don’t do something we think we should…

…we take one thing away…

Sally Schneider
Sally Schneider

Improvised Life reader Jeanne McMenemy of Calligraphica created a calligraphy piece of Merton’s words, in combination by a small poem by Edith Shiffert. Perfect.  (You can purchase it here.)

Jeanne McMenemy/Calligraphica
Jeanne McMenemy/Calligraphica

*from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton

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2 replies on “The Subtle Violence of Busyness (Thomas Merton)

  1. I’ve long loved this bit of Merton’s wisdom. Thought you might enjoy seeing a calligraphy piece I made in 2004, using this quote in combination with a small poem by Edith Shiffert. Here’s a link to an image. (Can’t figure out how to post an image here in the comment section) Thanks for posting this reminder… so easy to lose sight of these words in the multitude of conflicting concerns!

  2. It does make me wonder, on occasion, how our perception of value changed from a saying that represented our grandparents’ generation–Do one thing and do it very well–morphed into required “multitasking” and the violence that Merton says comes from that.

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