"Peace of mind, solitude, long stretches of concentration, have become luxuries almost beyond reach. We express this very inadequately by saying that we are 'frightfully busy just now.' Deep down we know that the condition is permanent for all who cannot afford the blessed relief of a nervous breakdown.
Now the educated as we have known them in the past have had roots in an entirely different soil and breathed a different air. They were products of leisure and independence, of established institutions and quiet maturing. They contributed to others' enjoyment of life by sharing with them the pleasures of conversation and friendship and spoken wisdom, but enrichment of the mind was the chief concern. The enterprise was deemed legitimate. Whatever was done to earn fame or money, from winning battles to farming estates, the doer was not so bedeviled by it that he lacked time to engage in the fundamental activities of the educated, which are: to read, write, think, and converse." ~ Jacques Barzun
I learned recently that Jacques Barzun is over one hundred years old! Surely then, his words about leisure and quiet maturing are worthy of a second glance. He's had the time to test them out.
I fondly remember my first reading of historian Jacques Barzun's work. It was the very large tome he is best known for, From Dawn to Decadence, a history of the 1500's to the present. We had many a wonderful afternoon together, Jacque and I, as I read his book while sprawled out on a blanket under a tree. It took the whole summer.
Leisure is not something I easily carve out for myself. When I do, like as not I will feel a little guilty about it. After all, there is always another load of laundry to fold, or a phone call that I need to return, or a floor that needs swept. But when Barzun speaks of the "frightfully busy" condition as being permanent, I shudder. That thought provides me with enough resolve to put aside the busy-busy tasks and "breath a different air."
The short term reward is recovery of breath; rejuvenation. The long term reward is that I gain an education.
To read a book deeply is to "put my roots in a different soil" and to "breathe a different air." I can glean wisdom from great men and in fact share the very air they breathe. Spirit is "breath", and the written word enables me a living connection with men of far-flung locale from any generation.
The four activities that Barzun says mark an educated person are all word-related:
Most Americans probably read a lot: the back of the cereal box, the billboard on the way to work, the news blog. The problem is that we have become accustomed to mini-snippets and unaccustomed to the "long stretches of concentration" to which Barzun refers. Those long stretches require scheduling.
As a parent, I also feel a responsibility to assure my family's ability to read and concentrate in a focused manner. Jane Healy's books have convinced me that TV, movies, and computer usage should be severely limited before a child has the capacity to read fluently. Even after fluency is achieved, it remains prudent to be vigilant. The mind is lazy and loves to be coddled with passive information rather than to be challenged by deep thoughts.
Here are my own current reads:
Ideas Have Consequences
Money, Possessions, and Eternity
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge
What are yours?
From personal journaling, to blogging, to writing Sunday School Curriculum~~ writing is the thing that forces my rusty brain to get in gear and get to work. The best writers normally schedule in daily time to practice and do not wait for the "mood" to strike. Writing is learned by jumping in and DOING it. Sometimes, I like to do my high school kids' writing assignments alongside with them. It's instructive and sharpening.
William Zinnser, in his book Write to Learn, contends that the linear, step-by-step process of writing enables us to learn difficult subjects. Think physics or calculus or whatever else you might find difficult. When grappling with a knotty problem, tangles are often cleared up when I write about it.
Writing and thinking are closely connected. Clear writing produces clear thinking; or is it the other way around?
One uniquely human attribute that we have is the power of will to direct our thinking. To CHOOSE what I think about is an aspect of self governance that I suspect will take a lifetime to truly master. I can and I ought to take my thoughts captive. Sometimes I have helped myself along by speaking or reading aloud, or by writing my thoughts on paper.
We also have the ability to store up beautiful memories, songs, and stories in the treasure chest of the heart. Whenever we need something uplifting to think about, those gems are waiting for us to retrieve and to enjoy again.
A person who is an avid reader will never fail to have imaginative ideas as fodder for good conversation. My recent reading of Benjamin Franklin's biography comes to mind here. His reputation as a conversationalist was largely due to the fact that he made regular investments in his reading habit. Barzun, in the above quote, notes that conversation is a pleasure that adds enjoyment to the lives of others. I like the other-centeredness of that thought. We all know people who love only to hear their own voice.....that is another subject!
What living ideas have you recently gleaned from your reading that would make for lively conversation? Don't make the mistake of thinking that no one else would be interested. It's usually safe to infer that if it interests YOU, it will also interest others. Take a risk and start a conversation!
OK, I'll take my own advice. I just highlighted a quote in the book Money, Possessions, and Eternity:
"The very expression 'financial independence' may be blasphemy."
That is a bold statement that is sure to get people talking!
In case you are interested, as I was, in the "why" behind the statement-- here it is:
When I am financially secure, I don't really sense my need for God. To have a lack in some area may be a blessing. In fact, that gap in my supply may be engineered purposefully by my Sovereign to keep me mindful of my dependence on Him. Why is it that we usually equate material blessing with God's favor? It may be just the opposite, keeping us from drawing near because we are self sufficient.
It's Sunday evening and a whole new week stretches before me. I'm so glad that for now I have wrenched myself away from that which keeps me "frightfully busy." Thank you, Mr. Barzun for your example of quiet maturing. If I live to be 100, I hope that I, too, will show evidence of that same maturity borne of masterly leisure.