The Soul Is Built Entirely of Attentiveness

I heard a podcast the other day featuring a gentleman I had never heard of named Parker Palmer. He was quoting Thomas Merton, the late American writer, and it was one of those moments when the information you need comes to you at the exact moment you need it.

Merton wrote, “There is a pervasive form of modern 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.

It destroys the fruitfulness of his, or her, work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

(These words were written in 1966.)

I have been reflecting on the modern violence of overwork on my own behalf, but also on behalf of a dear friend who I have watched grapple with these same issues. The feeling of near drowning is one we can slowly become accustomed to, until it makes us forget what “normal” was.

We are a society obsessed with effectiveness, results and outcomes. The tighter we cling to that effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we take on. The smaller and smaller, inevitably, we ourselves become.

Faithfulness, Palmer exhorted, must trump effectiveness. By faithfulness he meant “am I being faithful to my own gifts and how I can affect the world around me? Have I shown up fully with what I’ve got everyday?”

The concept of violence goes well beyond doing physical harm. We do violence every time we violate, or fail to respect, our own or another person’s soul.

And the soul is built entirely of attentiveness.