On the Pursuit of Less
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n.n.n.b. It is likely that you have heard of my patron saint, Saint Thomas More, however, are you familiar with his less famous, but equally illustrious counterpart: Saint Thomas Less? Though often confused—after all, less is more these days—the latter’s story is even more unbelievable than the former’s.
Above: The shortest messages often hold the largest truths.
It has been a lengthy year full of strife, struggle, and sorrow.
Scratch that—it has not only been this year. The days that made up the tail end of 2019 and all of 2020 have also dragged along like a shopping cart with one broken wheel; they have been irritating, abrasive, and tough to maneuver.
The past thousand or so days have made clear to me why the Chinese aphorism, “May you live in interesting times” is interpreted more as curse than blessing.
Either way, as this year and its interesting times draw to an end, as the darkness that bookends each day looms ever longer, the pursuit of idleness (what an ironic phrase, consisting of vigorous noun chasing indolent state) beckons, the dolce far niente inherent to the winter season tempts.
The above likely betrays my difficulty mustering the courage and conviction to write as of late. As it so often does, the lie that I have written enough this week, this month, this year threatened to lull me into a sweet sense of complacency. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire seemed (and smelled, for that matter) much more enjoyable than pecking at a keyboard did.
Inevitably, the cruel mistress that is doubt clawed at the warm bubble of my cozy reverie. As furrows spread across my forehead, a few questions came to mind. I asked myself:
Did my curiosity and writing inspire others or did my flitting from one topic to another make me no more than modern day Willy Loman?
Were eighteen pieces sufficient output for a calendar year?
Was my meager corpus something to be proud of?
Put simply, had I done enough?
Enough is a funny word and an even funnier (read as: more enigmatic) concept. It draws out questions about quantity and quality, how much and how many, and can drive you mad if you let it.
The cult of productivity and religion of achievement do not help matters. These pervasive institutions spur us to do more, more, more while simultaneously robbing us of the ability to savor any success we might encounter along the way.
This urge to always accomplish, attain, achieve is like trying to reach the speed of light; at some point, it’s a futile task.
This is a real problem as it is an incontrovertible fact that you will never be happy if you are always looking for something else. This nomadic path is no more than a vicious, careening, never-ending cycle. As they say, comparison is the thief of joy.
We latch onto these superficial things — the promotion earned, the exam aced, the trophy won — looking outwards for peace that can only come from within. We highlight our accomplishments and sleepwalk through our everyday actions at our own peril.To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our [achievements].”
Frustratingly, we know this; it sits embedded within our logical core. However, for whatever reason these things tend to defy logic.
Like most things worth doing, this is simple but not easy. Reframing our perception is hard work and requires constant practice, recalibration, diligence, and discipline. As they say, the heaviest weight at the gym is the front door.
At the end of the day, a very small number of things add up to matter a great deal.
What’s frustrating is that these things seem inevitable in hindsight and are inscrutable in foresight.
What’s liberating is that anything and everything that you do eventually shrinks from a chapter to a paragraph to a line to a word to a letter to a scribble in the book of your life.
Though things may fade, you do not.
In this way, you are the only constant in the equation of your life. And this is not only okay, but also enough. Indeed, to echo my recent post on love, you both have and are enough.
Put simply, it is not what you do, but rather who you are. Per William Makepeace Thackeray, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”
You, dear reader.
These are the foundational building blocks that construct a world, illuminate a purpose, make up an existence.
They are both the ends and the means.
They are, in a word, enough.
After deep thought, I came to two realizations:
To look in the mirror and stare back at enough is to see the face of God.
To come to realize the eternal depth of enough is to have a bountiful life.
This year has gone on long enough. So too has this piece.
As such, I now leave you with a few parting words on the constituent parts of enough.
Kurt Vonnegut on Joseph Heller’s divine contentment:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!
St. Teresa of Avila on serenity:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
Samuel Beckett on perseverance:
I offer you…my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.
St. John of the Cross on stillness:
Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Here’s to an abundance of enough this year and every other.
I wish you and yours a wonderful New Year with very many happy returns.
Per my about page, White Noise is a work of experimentation. I view it as a sort of thinking aloud, a stress testing of my nascent ideas. Through it, I hope to sharpen my opinions against the whetstone of other people’s feedback, commentary, and input.
If you want to discuss any of the ideas or musings mentioned above or have any books, papers, or links that you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of White Noise, please reach out to me by replying to this email or following me on Twitter.
With sincere gratitude,
Made you look. Goodness, you are gullible.
This is not clarion call for complacency. Rather, an extolment of its distant cousin, contentment.
"To come to realize the eternal depth of enough is to have a bountiful life" -- such rapture in this statement! What an absolutely beautiful newsletter, Tom.
These words, “The cult of productivity and religion of achievement” have so stayed with me since I read this last year. Thank you. I am a person that does much better doing if I allow myself more time to be. I’m fortunate to be in a place in my life where that is possible. Now my goal is to let go of the cult and religion you reference. Thank you so much for reminding me, for giving me permission, for helping guide me with your words.