The Modern Violence of Over-Work

Wednesday, October 15, 2014 - 6:12am

The Modern Violence of Over-Work

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, gifted writer, social critic, and spiritual virtuoso — has inspired many people. I'm one of them.

Merton wrote these incisive words in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander more than fifty years ago, but they are no less true today than when he wrote them.

"There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist...most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. 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 the activist neutralizes his (or her) work... It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her), because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful."

I first read this passage in 1970, when I was caught up in the frenzy of working as a community organizer in Washington, D.C. To this day, I re-read them often because they remind me to ask myself a critical question that I too easily forget: "What do I need to do right now to tend the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?"

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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P.S. The quote is from Merton's journal, "Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander"—a great read and a great title! It's on p. 73 of the 1965 hardbound edition. As you'll see there, the quote is Merton's gloss on some comments by the revered Quaker writer and teacher, Douglas Steere—who was, blessedly, one of my mentors.

A beautiful gift as I begin another day. Every moment is a gift of life.

It is amazing how Merton's vision is so timely for todays world. What a great reminder to take a step back and "smell the roses." With so many tweets and instant messages, it is so easy to foorget that sometimes taking a step back, is just as important as taking two strps forward.

To succomb to violence, or to wear exhaustion as a status symbol, bemoaning the perpetual state of being triple-booked as sign of one's high value, and source of self-esteem?

I love this. Wayne Muller's book "Sabbath" is all about this theme. We can get so caught up in getting bigger, better, faster, richer, etc. I love returning to these words about rest, and being patient, and listening. Oh, to listen. Thanks for a beautiful post.

Thank you for this timeless reminder.

I would also add that in our world there are so many messages (blogs, books, articles, posts, tweets, etc...) of how to make ourselves, our relationships and our world better (some of which is helpful, including this post). But by over-attending to these messages of outer wisdom, "...the root of inner wisdom…" is, at best neglected and at worst killed, by lack of watering the root and that to which it is attached.

interestingly, merton addresses some of these laments in his collection of the readings of chuang tzu, especially concerning wu wei,or non-doing.

It did not occur to me that over work is a form of innate violence, however on reflection, it is difficult to disagree that this works against one's inner wisdom and does in fact destroy the fruitfulness of our work. It is tempting to think that only when we are really busy and overworked that we have value. Thank you for sharing this quote from Merton which exposes the truth of what overwork does to us.

This is a great quote that I keep with me at my school. I need a huge poster with this on it so I can see and reflect on these words every day.

Unfortunately, I don't think I do a great job at following the advice!

Merton's readings inspire me, console me, fire me up, quiet me down, and remind me to listen to my own inner voice I've been reading Merton for years, yet when I go back to his books,his struggles with life's endless questions remain fresh. He does not pretend to have everything figured out, which is refreshing. So glad he shared his insightful searches with all of us. His writings are treasures.

I'm curious what "inner wisdom" means to you and what it meant to Merton.

Do you think it means the same for everyone, or does it vary with culture, religion, era, economic situation, gender...?

Reading Merton daily gives me hope and strength.

While I totally agree that rest, refreshment, and introspection are absolutely vital to good mental health, I believe that APATHY, especially as it relates to pursuing social justice, is our society's most dangerous malaise. Finding the balance between these is extremely difficult.

I can succumb to this far too easily. Thank you for this reminder that constant busyness is not what makes our work fruitful.

This quote from Merton hangs above my desk in my home office. When an email arrives asking me to commit to another project or to say yes to taking on more than I can comfortably handle, reading this quote strengthens my resolve to let the guilt pass and keep my life simple.

The frenzy of many in Church is a huge violence against themselves, others and God. Today hurried Church became fruitless, because its indifference is the result of the hunt of the success and the achievement.If I can't find time to meet and listen to God and rest in Him,/ whom should I love with whole heart/- I will never find time for the other person.Life is a gift not an achievement and people made idols from themselves and their activities. Church is here to share Christ- who was never hurried, despite He is a Son Of God and had to achieved more than the "activists." He had always time for long prayers.People are leaving the Church, because nobody cares about them and their needs. The most important is not happening- carrying each other burdens- that is why mystical body of Christ suffers.Many live a lie, that being busy/just for wrong reasons/is a virtue.If my local Church doesn't reach out and help me when I suffer, because members are too busy with not essentials/ like entertainment,fun/and in 20 years I am not approached, because I am invisible for busy capitalists-it shows that in their eyes I am not worthy. And I am not the only case, that is in crises.People manage their lives and do not care about will of God for them. They do not have time for Eucharist, so why would they love a common woman and pay attention to her? She is not an achiever, so it is only waste of time for them...sadly.Would Christ know these indifferent people in the end? Is lukewarm state of their souls God's will?Nobody can fool the Lord, because He knows the heart...

Frankly, I frequently feel that activists feel compelled to be as busy as they are simply because not enough people are sharing the labor. If more people were activists, activists would not need to be so over-worked! This feels particularly true right now with climate justice activism. There simply still are not enough of us.

I think my most powerful insights come to me in a quiet place, but I have never really taken a valid survey of that belief. Perhaps it is, rather, that the most appealing and compelling insights come to me in that quiet place, while other insights come and go without much notice in the rush of doings. I am one who needs great quiet spaces to re-energize, not crowds of people or things. For me,to fail to know myself in that important way, and honor what I need--which our culture can suggest is 'lazy, or dreamy';negative in some way--is as much a violence as failing to bring good food or water to my body. It is clear to see, yet so easy to fail to notice.

Parker Palmers reflections are always so personal. In many he speaks of deep depression, I wonder if any really mindful creature could fully develop without it. Yet he finds the gift within the challenge and puts it in words for all of us to share. Gratitude.

This is an absolute truth. And this is quite funny because I recently received this article from a person very close to me, with whom I had had a discussion on how happily I was over working and delivering great results but had got a negative feedback from my boss, who said I was compromising not only the other aspects of my life (like my family, friends and hobbies) but also my very own productivity at work in a long term. It sounded absurd to me, I must say. I mean, in which corporate world someone tells a high performer to slow down? In my point of view, I was just having fun by over working, I was defending my ideas, developing arguments to support them, being, using the article's words, an activist idealist. Nothing wrong there, but it makes sense to think that this behavior will eventually kill the root of my vision and my fruitful work. Thanks for sharing.

Reading that reminds me of a favorite saying of a dear friend- 'we are human beings, not human doings'. I long to live in a society that places living well ahead of 'what you want to be when you grow up.' I work to live, not live to work.

I have never found this quote, after following merton as best i can over the years.
How much do you need? A book that came out decades ago that i read and followed is,,,, ''Your money or your life'' by joe domingus and vickie robbins.
Worth the effort and money to get cassette..oops.. might be downloadable now..?
thanks for the site and shows that create a safe place to .ponder..

Exactly what has been gnawing at my heart and soul is this concept of over-work. The more I "work" to complete a project, the less invested I feel only because the project itself is mandated, not created. Talking with co-workers we agree that we have too much on our plates. Perhaps because we are perceived as being "efficient workers" we are asked to do more.

I succumb to this sirens call frequently. The first time I realized the damage that can be done by over committing was down in New Orleans after Katrina. My son was with me and due to the work we were doing was eaten up by chiggers and poison ivy (he still has the scars). Somehow, in trying to help I failed both son and cause. I take naps now and try to pause. I still overdo it, but less dramatically with less damage.

I agree with Merton. What he describes here kills energy,passion,and authenticity. We need time to refuel ourselves, to take in the the beauty of life and the poignant moments of our own lives, grasp meaning, to contemplate and feel our feelings, as well as to understand other people's perspectives. If we are just putting out and not taking in, we become dried up, empty vessels. Consequently, these actions, or lack of..., threatens our humanity, leaving us with less to offer.