Martin LeFevre: A Balanced Life
A Balanced Life
The ancient Romans had general terms for a duality that persists to this day. They referred to ''vita contemplativa,'' versus ''vita activa'' — the contemplative life vs. the active life.
For the vast majority of people living in the West, and increasingly in the East as well, this duality (which was a false thing to begin with) has been settled by circumstances. The pressures of post-modern life have resolved the dilemma in a perverse way. Who has time to devote to contemplation, except the few remaining relics manning the monasteries?
Despite the scads of people going on ‘spiritual retreats,’ few seem to gain anything more than a few days respite from their obsessively busy lives. But what’s the point of recharging one’s batteries just to get back onto the gerbil wheel?
No doubt it has something to do with that magic word, ‘busy.’ Busyness, it seems, is the greatest escape and best excuse of all. ‘I’ve been so busy’ conveys many messages. And it almost always elicits absolution.
At one level, being very busy implies a subtle victim hood, as in ‘there are so many demands on me I don’t have time to myself.’ Another facet of the phrase implies importance—‘I have many important responsibilities, and so many people require my time.’
When I hear someone utter this post-modern mantra, I think of Shakespeare’s line, “Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Usually the word ‘balance’ connotes juggling the demands of society with one’s own desires, and even requirements for health. That’s always seemed an odd prescription for living to me, especially living in a dead culture. How do you ‘balance’ deadness with life? Therefore I generally don’t use the word.
But in considering ‘vita contemplativa’ and ‘vita activa,’ I think balance is just what is called for. Of course one first has to do away with the idea that busyness is a virtue. Next one has to do away with the duality itself. Contemplation and activity are not an either/or proposition; both are necessary for a healthy and…balanced life.
Whoever said, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” must have been a faithful servant of hell. It’s the perfect motto for consumeristic enslavement. Though I don’t know its origin, the bromide has a Puritanical odor to it. It befits the culture that came to dominate the New World, and of late, the entire world.
Actually, the opposite is true—busy hands and busy minds are the devil’s workshop. The less time for reflection, for simply sitting still and observing the movement of nature, oneself, and the world, the more swept up in the deadening produce-and- consume machine one is, and the more deeply embedded one is in the darkness of human consciousness.
In the past, religions, the bulwarks of morality and the status quo, got into the act by mandating one day a week of rest and prayer (though as prescribed, I’ve never found prayer very restful).
When I was young, it was still a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday. One was literally condemned to hell for all eternity for not going to church for an hour on Sunday! You can imagine my parent’s reaction when I came down one Sunday morning at 16 and said I wasn’t going to Mass that day or ever again.
Enshrining a day of the week to be religious seemed increasingly juvenile to me. Reflection cannot be commanded, and reverence cannot be conditioned. But the Sunday silliness pales next to codifying into a duality two key aspects of our natures. Sustaining the duality between ‘vita contemplativa’ and ‘vita activa,’ makes as much sense now as continuing with the division of labor between monks and merchants.
A good life requires the right balance between contemplation and activity, just as it does between solitude and sociality. The line varies from person to person, even from one time in an individual’s life to another.
Still, for millions of people there is a choice—go with the flow and get sucked into the sewer, or get out and wash off for an hour or two a day. One has to fight for that time, to be sure, but it’s something worth fighting for. One’s soul depends on it. After all, in the end all we have is a few short years on this whirling orb in space.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.