Meditations on the Wisdom of Inaction

July 30, 2019 Updated: July 30, 2019


I recently read an article published on The Art of Manliness that was written by one of my peers, Kyle Eschenroeder, a fellow writer and marketing director. The title of the piece was “Meditations on the Wisdom of Action,” and the main idea was that much of the confusion-driven anxiety that’s creating a feeling of meaninglessness in our society has a simple, one-step remedy: taking action.

The first thing I want to draw attention to is that I don’t disagree with the entirety of Eschenroeder’s position; in fact, I think we would agree on a great many things he writes about, if not the exact terms we’re each using. For what it’s worth, we should begin with clearly defining the difference between intellectual work and servile work.

In his treatise, Eschenroeder specifically states that meditation itself is work. What I wish to call attention to is the vitally important fact that not all work is created equal, nor can all its variants be compared “apples to apples.” Indeed, I would say that it borders on recklessness to speak of taking action as a cure-all for our societal ills, while lumping all “action” into the same basket.

My “radical” answer to those who would sound the general alarm to “take action” as the panacea for our culture is a firm (and decisive) “No.” Western culture has completely forgotten how to properly work and how to effectively engage in leisure. We don’t need more action, period. We must let go of this crazed idea that our justification and purpose is found in the sort of actions that can only be classified as servile work. We’re obsessed with taking actions with known performance indicators attached to them. I would further go on to condemn the self-refuting modern concept of a “work-life balance,” in which we seek to justify having any time set aside for life apart from work.

The modernist Western invention of “total work” may very well be what undoes Western Civilization, if it’s allowed to accelerate and spread unchecked.

In his philosophical masterpiece “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” Josef Pieper writes, “Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.”

We have forgotten how to contemplate; now, we fear the absence of 24/7 stimulation, no matter how empty the content we consume may be. By allowing our brains to exist in a state of constant digital noise, we’ve lost our ability to be receptive to the ideas that are actually worth the time to think about. We would rather be dead than bored; nowhere is this more apparent than in the phrase “killing time.” Time is our most precious commodity, yet we act as if it’s an enemy to be conquered and subdued.

As our culture has become more secular, we’ve lost the sense of the importance of days of rest built around a liturgical calendar that celebrates the passage of time and encourages meditation upon deeper truths. As Pieper writes, “The vacancy left by absence of worship is filled by mere killing of time and by boredom, which is directly related to inability to enjoy leisure; for one can only be bored if the spiritual power to be leisurely has been lost.”

Boredom isn’t something to be overcome; boredom, as our modern culture understands it, is actually the chief symptom of our illness. We think that “work for work’s sake” is a virtue and regard deep thought with suspicion and disdain. The truth is, leisure isn’t the absence of activity; it’s the stillness and quiet that exists in the space between words. Yet, we accept the lie that work is the be-all-end-all of our lives; we let our labor define us, rather than who we are and what we actually value and cherish.

What if instead, we looked at the active life as something we only tolerated in order to experience the true happiness of contemplation? As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the “Summa Theologica,” “When a person is called from the contemplative life to the active life, this is done by way not of subtraction but of addition.”

If we truly wish to find our way out of the noise and chaos that is our “always-connected, always-on” society, we have to learn how to be more than just tolerant of inaction; we have to learn how to embrace this silence and sit comfortably in our own thoughts.

Therefore, I’ll leave you with one last parting piece of advice from Pieper to contemplate: “Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and ‘go under,’ almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go. The surge of new life that flows out to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery—is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep?”

If you want to find peace, you have to surrender to the discomfort that is peace in today’s world.

Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret, with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. You can follow him on Twitter @EricksonPrime

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Chris Erickson
Chris Erickson
Chris Erickson is a combat veteran and former Green Beret with extensive experience deployed to various locations across the world. He now works in the communications industry. Follow him on Twitter at @EricksonPrime.