My Most Recent Reasons for Not Writing, Or Learning How To Be Good
Impatience, Boredom, and Becoming Comfortable with Time's Own Pace
Boredom is just a different kind of impatience, and both deadly to pursuing good things.
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The Most Recent List of Excuses I’ve Not Been Writing A Newsletter Consistently
There are always reasons here, I think: some permanent and some temporary. If it wasn’t this undead book project, it would be some other project: there are three more contracts waiting in the wings after this one is wrapped up. If it wasn’t Lonesome Dove, it would be any of the hundreds of unread books on our ever-burgeoning shelves. These are just excuses, and in part, just symptoms of a different problem.
The habitual pursuit of something good, like the writing of a newsletter, is built on consistency. Habits are, as Thomas Aquinas says, less like repeated acts of will and more like movements in the soul—once a thing gains motion, you can either push it downhill or stand in its way. It gains gravity, consistency, traction, and changing that direction of habit is the matter of will.
And that opposing force of will comes in varying forms. If I sin, acting against a good habit, trying to move against the grain, it is as one standing in front of a rock rolling downhill, crushed by grace. But, as we know, it is possible to resist the gravity of grace. And sometimes, the opposing force of will is another good habit—the care of family, the love of friends, the obligations to students. The injured man on the side of the road is not so much an obstacle so much as a detour: the Samaritan arrives late to his destination, even if for good reasons.
So, sure, there are reasons for slowing a good thing. But as I write this, this still feels like an excuse, for circumstances are not really reasons: we are not entirely passive creatures, people to whom lives happen to, immovable beings moved upon by fate.1 We are creatures capable of identifying the things we do, the choices we make, as those which reflect our identity, even if they weren’t choices we made. When we find ourselves in a season we did not wish for, the choice is either to abandon our sense of agency and shake our fists at the sky, or to embrace the world as it comes to us and seek. Apart from death, we don’t get to opt out of our lives, chosen or not.
So: time and restrictions on time are just what they are: life itself, and not so much a problem as a me failing to see what our lives are actually made of. The problem is not fatigue or shortness of time, as if just having more time would mean a greater writing frequency. Being busy is nothing new, and having two kids and a wife who need my attention is nothing new.
The problem here is not lack of time. The real challenges are the vicious twins of impatience and boredom.
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The most immediate challenge to not doing a good thing is that time is short and that there is too much to do, but having too much to do is par for being a parent and a full-time provider for the income needed to run the home. It would be much easier if, perhaps our obligations were not what they were. But it’s folly to presume that our lives are ever those things which we decide on for ourselves: our lives are always full of obligations and resistance to the things which we perceive as good and true.
So, when faced with obstacles, we have one of two options: to persevere or to despair. When we pursue goods, we pursue them at a certain speed that we become acclimated to over time. We become accustomed to a certain rhythm of pursuit, and when obstacles emerge, it is not so much that the pursuit is ended, but that it is interminably slowed. And so, the choice emerges: to slow but not cease, or to assume that the pursuit is no longer worth it.
The obstacle appears, and the choice is not to deny it or accept it. The obstacle is real: the child must be answered, the obligation must be met. The choice is not to answer the call or not—the choice is what to do with the other goods which belong to long term aims, but are not immediately on fire.
The challenge is not whether this deferred good will be part of our lives, but how: will it live as a deferred dream, as detritus trailing behind us, or as grit in our shoe, nagging at us to attend to it, to incorporate it not just as a dream, but as an irritating dream. Because whoever said that good things came pain free?
To embrace something good is to embrace it with patience, for in patience, we learn to embrace any good as a good that comes over time. To want to have a good at the same pace at all times is to be impatient with how anything good comes, first as slow movement, and sometimes again as slow movement. To embrace that good thing is to embrace patience as the condition for its appearance.
Boredom: Where Dreams Go To Die
If a refusal to be patient with good things is one problem, the twin problem is that we do not recognize impatience as a problem. In thinking that good things have to come only at a pace that we want, our expectations of good things can settle into a groove established by delight.
This is a mistake: it conflates goodness with pleasure, virtue with the delicious feeling of success. But roots growing means, among other things, the removal of soil, the digging out of rocks and death: so much death—of fungi, of mulch, of seed husks and old dreams and a vision of the world as responding to my touch.
The flip side of impatience is boredom, for in boredom, we are rendering a judgment on life as not moving at a pace which we desire. But that’s not how life works. That’s not how any of this works. The challenge is not to have life fit our pace, but to own life’s pace as the form in which good things are coming to us. Providence means, among other things, that time is a gift and that to demand that time give more up than it does is to demand time fit to our wishes instead of vice versa.
Beware them both, settle in, and embrace the truth that good things come to those that wait.
Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom, chapter 3.