Doing Too Much

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

— Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

There’s a great temptation to push ourselves always to do more, to try to help everyone. But Merton cautions us that valuing the ends of our actions over the means is ultimately counterproductive. In fact, it can lead us to participate in exactly what we are working to overcome.

As I get older, I’m increasingly aware of the finite time ahead of me and my limited life span. I now have to make hard choices about where I spend my time and energy. Earlier in my life, there seemed to be a boundless future expanse ahead of me. I had time to try things out and make mistakes, knowing I could change course in the future. Although it’s never too late to learn from our mistakes, I now feel it’s wise to spend more time discerning these choices rather than leaping into action and figuring it out later. Fortunately, with age comes the benefit of experience and more wisdom about making choices.

Although we may have outgrown our youthful abundance of energy, most of us still want to help make the world better. The broader perspective of age can make us more inclined to activism. But our experiences and mistakes made along the way help us better understand Merton’s warning about succumbing to doing too much.

Merton cautions, “The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace.” How can we effectively work for peace, equality, and justice for all people if we are willing to sacrifice our own capacity for peace in the process? Rather than creating a better world, we end up actively harming ourselves and destroying our “root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

It’s all too easy to commit to many good activities (such as volunteering with a worthy organization, helping people in our community who are in need, or helping members of our family) when we see a need for action. But then it’s also easy to end up frustrated when we can’t see visible change, have difficulty working with others in an organization, encounter resistance from others who don’t support our cause, or run into other roadblocks that we can’t control. If our frustration compromises our inner peace, then our ability to bring peace and goodness to the world is also compromised.

It helps me to remember that ultimately God is in charge of using my actions to bring about change. It’s not all up to me. I can’t force things by working harder and pushing myself (or others I am trying to help). I only need to do what I can do in love, with an open and giving heart, and trust that God will use my efforts (along with those of many others in the world) to bring about positive change.

A Closing Prayer

Thank You for all the caring, compassionate people who work for justice and a better world for all people. I am inspired by the depth of their passion and their willingness to donate their time and resources. I marvel at how You have given us such different abilities and things we care about so fiercely. Let us each find something that moves us enough to step out of our comfort zone and become an activist in our unique way. Bless all the people who work to change the world into a better place, a bit at a time. Let them maintain their inner peace so that what they do and how they do it spread love and peace. Amen.

7 comments

  1. I think your last paragraph sums things up perfectly (“ultimately God is in charge of using my actions to bring about change. It’s not all up to me”). It’s difficult to know where that fine line is between working a bit harder hoping that extra push will be the Aha moment vs letting go to God. I tend to be a Martha and not a Mary. Working on a name change. Your words illuminate the reality. Thank you, Tacky.

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  2. “But then it’s also easy to end up frustrated when we can’t see visible change, have difficulty working with others in an organization, encounter resistance from others who don’t support our cause, or run into other roadblocks that we can’t control” … I do believe the plan is God’s and whatever success comes of it is His also – I find that liberating and humbling at the same time. Although I don’t always remember that when in the middle of disagreements… Thanks for sharing your insights!

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  3. Hi Cathy, I’ve been reading Thomas Merton a lot lately and find my heart opening with his words. Your words do the same. I’ve been slowing down lately and it gives me more time to feel God’s love for me. I pray for peace inwardly and outwardly. Keep it coming. Deb Hunt

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    1. Merton can be difficult to read at times, so good for you for sticking with him. He does indeed have a lot of wisdom to share. And slowing down is always a good practice – glad to hear it’s working for you!

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