When I took my first classes in philosophy, I got an assignment I enjoyed very much: writing a paper on the problem Aristotle would have with using all one’s intelligence, skill and effort to organize one’s life around football, beer and nachos. I know, sounds like a good idea to me, even though my favorite football teams stink right now. A lot of people can go for this, it makes the NFL billions, not to mention Budweiser and companies whose products rhyme with -itos. The problem Aristotle would have with that is the goal of the effort isn’t worthy of the resources used: our highest reason and effort should go to purposes beyond our entertainment, purposes for personal enlightenment and improvement and the greater good. The byproduct of this effort is what makes it all worthwhile: happiness, which is found when we are striving for the life of virtue.
One problem I find with society is we have made all goals equally worthy: football, beer and nachos are now seem equal to teaching children to read, taking care of a sick person or any other activity that makes the world a better place for all to live. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, we all need a break, but should it be the main objective of life? The problem is we spend all our effort to stand still, to capture the moment and loop it indefinitely. The goal is Complacency: which focuses us inward and dulls our senses to everything that doesn’t make us feel good. Complacency is about making a idol of ourselves, creating a image of ourselves that won’t be changed: in essence, making ourselves into statues.
Complacency is more deadly to Spiritual life than anything else. We have a destiny in heaven, but if we take things for granted our reservations there may not come through. No matter who we are, or how far we have progressed in Faith, there is always something more to learn, something more to meditate on, something more to pray about, something more to do. If we dare think we’re ready for Heaven, we may find ourselves slipping away and disappointed.
God is timeless, God lives in the Eternal Present. It’s natural to aspire to be in God’s presence and at times we need to take time just to Be. However, it’s not our nature to be static: if we stop moving, if we stop growing, we die and we lose whatever we try to keep. The parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12 is a great illustration of what the drive for complacency leads to: nothing. Trying to imitate God by not changing won’t work because our nature is radically different from God’s, at least it is in this lifetime. Trying to get a culture or society to stop is a ludicrous thought, if it this were ever possible.
What to do about it? The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said that one of the great failings of contemporary society was it discourages reflection. This is prophetic since he said it in the 1940s; surely he had no idea lack of reflection would be the norm 60 years later. If we think about what we’re doing, we might make the major part of our lives, our work and the people we are with the focus of our intelligence, skill and effort rather than our personal leisure. If we think about what we’re doing, we might not reach to satisfy our immediate urges without considering the long term consequences or how we’re spending our money.
Contemplation is the primary path of reflection as Marcel describes it. We try to stand still, clear our minds, push out all the surface worries and impulses, open our minds to the universe so the truly important things in our lives can come forward and get our full attention. Complacency can be working hard to reach a point of stasis; Contemplation is cultivating stasis so we can see where we need to work hard.
Faith is the MOST important thing in our lives. It’s not just about saying the right thing or being in the right place at the right time. It’s about practicing to be better every day of our lives. It’s about opening ourselves to God in prayer to be reformed, and finding the thing in our lives that’s worthy of our intelligence, skill and effort. The worthy goal of our lives is working with God to reshape the world into what He needs it to be. Pursing this not only brings about a better world, but peace and happiness for us as individuals.
So we need time for being still, but we’re not supposed to sit still. How about that for a paradox?