A friend paid me a visit at my office last week. Now in her mid-80’s, she made the long drive into Indianapolis, navigating construction, arguing with Google, and working to avoid the often bizarrely unexpected from other drivers. As she unpacked the picnic lunch she had brought, complete with placemats, plates, and silverware, she told me of some of her projects, her busy schedule, and her efforts to help the “old people” living in her retirement community.
If one looked up “golden years” in the dictionary, her photo and CV might appear. Though I’ve only known her for about 15 years of her long life, I suspect that “golden” is more a reflection of her overall approach to life rather than a summation of a window of time. Some are just radiant that way.
Amid the soup, sandwich, and dessert, we caught up on much, and I found myself smiling at her energy and curiosity. A beautiful conversation is one that moves along effortlessly, lifting all along the way, and forcing itself to no place in particular, all while taking you somewhere else. Ours was a lovely conversation.
One topic we covered was her effort to help those in her community through a cookbook project and a guidebook on interacting with those suffering from dementia. She described the general retreat she saw in many who were older, oftentimes a retreat to comfort, or from fear. As she spoke, I thought to myself, “retreat of this type doesn’t just happen in a retirement community.”
The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote of the “gravitational pull of the vegetative life,” describing our tendency to get comfortable with less struggle and less resistance, ultimately resulting in less effort on our part. His quotation reminded me of Vivian’s call to “lay like broccoli” in the 1990 film, Pretty Woman, as she tried to get businessman Edward to slow down and take some time off. Where does our need to chill and replenish begin to turn toward the the vegetative life of comfort, status quo, and less effort?
Curious, I opened one of my journals and went back a year, then two, then three. Amid the various undulations of life that reveal themselves in such writing, I noticed periodic entries focused on a bit of cheerleading…for myself. Moments when I had caught myself in comfort, or more alarmingly, in laziness. Places in which I didn’t “feel like it” or “needed to get myself in gear.” Funny, I never thought of myself as lacking motivation, but there it was in my own scrawl – moments when I began to coast, retreat, or found myself stuck in frustration. Moments that were easy to forget until I could trace their arc through times of my life.
Feeling convicted, and perhaps a bit soft in comfort, I did a workout that I haven’t tried in about 5 years. Huffing, puffing, tired, and hurting, I pulled up a few minutes short of finishing. Out of breath, and with a poke of sharpness in my hamstring, I thought: “how quickly and completely it goes.” I hadn’t stopped working out, but I had lessened the intensity. After a few days of aches and tenderness, I’m reminded of how much easier it is to leave such effort behind.
Less Effort, More Comfort
As time goes on, our belly gets full, our seats get more comfortable, our beds beckon us, the shiny things glitter distractingly, and the siren’s call lures us to the numbing comfort of a place with less struggle. A place where we might lay like broccoli in the vegetative cruise control of less effort, and its reflection, less discomfort.
Lest we think this is simply age or prosperity induced, it shows itself in our jobs and relationships as well as in our personal growth and development. The status quo is a siren’s call for organizations as is the mirage of a stable, steady, career for anyone thinking they’ve arrived professionally. Nothing is static, and the slow death of too much comfort is as dangerous as the sharp rocks of too much change. We can find the “gravitational pull of the vegetative life” in all facets of our existence.
The Pope Benedict quotation above comes from a piece he wrote talking about letting ourselves be carried along in our lives, and our need to remember that “it takes effort to see beyond what is right in front of us and free ourselves from the tyranny of what immediately presses upon us.” Often, the tyranny of what is immediately pressing upon us holds us back from living fully as it locks us into the comfort of the status quo, and the fear of exertion that might offer a fresh form of freedom.
Real and Imagined
I’m not suggesting that we all return to the overdrive moments of our lives when we burned our candle at both ends, pulled muscles lifting too much weight, or exhausted ourselves in the constant pursuit of more. However, there is a cautionary tale to be told at both ends of the spectrum of too little and too much. There is a danger in the pull toward sloth that comes when we settle into the real comforts of the known and the imagined safety of the status quo.
What’s the answer? Awareness. Recognition. Intentionality. Most of the best things in life are found beyond the narrow gate of too little and too much. The times of feasting must be balanced with the times of fasting lest we falter too far in either direction. Moderation? Sure, that is a good place to start. Just remember that our natural state will tend toward retreat to the comfort of less effort, and that, no matter how good that position may feel, the bedsores appear when we’ve laid in one place for too long.