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The Freedom of Inaction

“Nature knows no pause in progress and development, and attaches her curse on all inaction.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The 28th of August is Goethe’s birthday, so I thought it fitting to reflect on two quotes that, on the face of it, seem to contradict each other. Quotes have a way of expressing what you want them to, without the depth and nuance of the longer work they’re drawn from. We live in a soundbites culture, after all, and the lede is all some people want to read. We know Goethe went far deeper, and owe it to ourselves to jump into the deep end ourselves, don’t we?

On the one hand, we know it to be true that momentum is sustained by continuous action (Stephen Covey would have said pushing the flywheel), yet on the other know that rest is as essential to our long term wellbeing as action is(Covey’s sharpening the saw). They don’t contradict, they aggregate. As with everything else in life, balance is the key.

As I close out the final miles of a walking challenge I made for myself this summer, I see the cumulative benefit of it in better fitness even as I feel the soreness from some long walks to close out the goal. We know when we ought to rest more, and ignore it at our peril. This is true in everything. Taking some time off from work last week, I anticipated long walks balanced by long stints on the beach diving into the stack of books I’d been collecting for the occasion. That beach time largely evaporated as I conceded time to projects that simply had to get done. The feeling of watching the week slip away with most of that stack of books unread was akin to feeling like you missed your flight as it departed the gate.

The thing is, there’s freedom in inaction. Deliberate down time without distraction forces us to sort things out in both body and spirit, and clear the way for the next phase of action to follow. That compulsion to do more instead of embracing essential rest eventually catches up to us. I return from time off feeling there was unfinished business, unlike a few weeks ago when sailing, where plugging in or doing projects simply weren’t options. So it seems the key for relaxation is to eliminate any means to rid ourselves of the freedom of inaction. This shouldn’t be physically removing ourselves from task mania, but instead mentally doing so. Just say no to the task master inside.

Happy Birthday Johann. I’ll try to relax a bit today in your honor. But there’s work to do before that. You know: no pause in progress and development, and all that.

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