“At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a man’s work’… Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm? But this is more pleasant. Were you born then for pleasure—all for feeling, not for action?…But one needs rest too. One does indeed. I agree. But nature has set limits to this too… Other men love their own pursuit and absorb themselves in its performance to the exclusion of bath and food: but you have less regard for your own nature than the smith has for his metal-work, the dancer for his dancing… the exhibitionist for his little moment of fame…”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
I’ve had a week off from writing or doing any real kind of work. It’s been great. A well-needed break some might say. But there’s something I realised in it all. I realised how much I value self-discipline and how crucial it is to any long-term endeavour like, say, I don’t know, being a writer.
There’s something really valuable in taking a break. Everyone realises this. “Recharge your batteries,” they say, “Have a rest, you’ve earned it.” And it’s true. We do all need to stop doing what we’re doing every once in a while, rest up and then get back to it with a new, fresh vigour. I’m pretty sure that’s why most dieticians say trash your paleo, fat-free, gluten-free, vegan diet once in a while (well, in that case you don’t really have a choice…). They know you’ll burn out eventually if you don’t have a rest from it. But here’s the rub. Every decision in life is walking the knife-edge of “just this one time.” You can always trash your diet that extra day or have that meal with slightly more calories. You can always sleep in and say, “I’ll write that amazing scene tomorrow.” Your life is, in a sense, nothing more than the collective sum of those daily decisions. So be careful, because every day does actually matter.
And, so long as you maintain a disciplined mindset, you’ll do fine. You can force yourself, proverbially and otherwise, to get out of bed. But I found, with this week off, how easy it is to just give in to a mindset of constantly delaying the hard work needed to achieve your goals. I found myself drifting from having a rest to being lazy when I was refreshed and could keep going. And yet, I still don’t feel guilty about it. Sometimes I think it’s valuable not just to have a rest, or binge the opposite so you swing back to what you want to be doing; sometimes I think you need to fail a little bit. You need to feel yourself slipping from the path you want to be on not just as a reminder of what you want to actually do, but as a reminder that it’s not just going to happen—you have to make it happen.
I think that last point—you have to make it happen—is at the heart of what Marcus Aurelius is saying. He seemed to believe that everyone had their part to play in society. However, paradoxically, that part each person has to play won’t wait for them. It’s theirs for the taking; what they’re born to do. And yet, if they don’t live according to it, their chance to do so will pass. Consider the following,
“Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it. It is high time now for you to understand…there is a limit circumscribed to your time—if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.”
Powerful stuff isn’t it? One the one hand, get out of bed, you’ve got something valuable to contribute to society. On the other, however, be careful how many opportunities you pass up, because you don’t know how many you’ll have left. At the heart of both though is this idea that the present moment is valuable; something to be taken and made the most off. And he’s right.
He’s right even when you’re doing a job you don’t find fulfilling. It’s still helping society somehow for you to be doing that role. But he’s even more right when it’s something you’re passionate about. How much more of a waste is it to miss out on what fulfils you and, through your best efforts, probably works more good for people beyond you as well? Have a break by all means but don’t let it become your lifestyle if you’ve still got plenty to give back to the world. That’s what I’ve been reminded of from having a week off. Carpe diem indeed.
(Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons)