To reflect or to do?

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I can never decide which is preferable, a life of reflection in which you feel time slowly passing, or a life full of activity that is so packed and busy that you never have a chance to ask yourself whether you are happy or not.

Both ways seem to have their attractions and pitfalls. Both Socrates and A.C. Grayling claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is living life like an animal. And Sam Harris might agree that time spent in calm reflection, in which your mind is not racing with its non-stop commentary, is time well-spent. You need quiet moments in which to stand back and pay attention to what it feels like to be alive.

Bertrand Russell would also probably agree. After all, he wrote an essay called, ‘In Praise of Idleness’ in which he suggested that a lot of misery is caused by people wanting to always be busy. He was convinced that it wasn’t necessary for us to work as much as we do.

Even so, he also likened humans to sausage machines. As long as the sausage machine is doing what it is supposed to, that is, making sausages, it is perfectly happy. But once it stops and asks itself questions like, ‘What’s it all for?’ and ‘What’s the meaning of life?’ it suddenly feels dissatisfied.

I think Russell meant that humans are content as long as they are living lives that humans are suited to. It’s only when they get the strange idea that there must be something more than this and that there is some overarching purpose behind all we do that people become dissatisfied with their lot.

According to people who spend a lot of time in contemplation, there are pleasures to be had from this quiet way of life that simply aren’t available to busy people. They claim that there is a heightened state of awareness that can only be accessed by slowing things down and stepping out of the constant stream of activity. Like a landscape seen at 100mph, living life in the fast lane tends to make all colours, textures and sounds blur into a uniform sameness. Slowing down helps you to distinguish things better.

As an image of the reflective way of life I sometimes picture Huckleberry Finn on a summer’s day, sprawled out on the grass by a stream, hands behind his head, chewing on a blade of grass and looking up at the clouds floating past. Any thought that comes into his head can be followed to wherever it leads, or he can just look at the clouds, feel the heat of the sun on his skin and listen to the stream gurgling past. Time does not press on him or force him to make plans. This often seems like an ideal life to me. However, I am also aware of the negative aspects of too much contemplation: boredom, loneliness and pointlessness.

The alternative is a life full of activity. You can do a million interesting things in life and when you die you will be able to say that you lived life to the full. After all, if we only have three score years and ten to live, it seems a shame not to do things during that short time. This would be the modern way of looking at things.

It seems to me that when I lean more to the contemplative side of life I become more self-absorbed and worried. My future death feels nearer and more real, and although this has the positive effect of making me take life less for granted than usual, it also makes me more fretful.

When I’m busy, I find myself concentrating on the task in hand, not on myself. Then I feel more like an ant in a colony and the feeling is a pleasant one. I feel like I am sharing in something bigger than just myself. Then thoughts of the wearing out of body parts and my eventual death rarely enter my head and even when they do, they don’t seem quite as tragic as in my more reflective moments.

On the other hand I can imagine getting to the end of my life and thinking, “Well, that was weird. I didn’t understand any of it. Life kind of rushed by me and now it’s over. Can’t I have another go? I promise to pay more attention next time.” Perhaps a little reflection can help avoid this fate.

Maybe the solution is not to divide your moments between these two ways of living but to live them consecutively. You could, for example, live the first sixty years of your life at full throttle and then spend the remainder of your life gently rocking to and fro in an old chair, mulling over what the previous sixty years all meant. The only problem with this is that people who have spent their lives avoiding reflection will probably make bad reflectors in old age. Thinking, like driving, is rarely done well when taken up late in life.

Most people will say that there is no need to go to either extreme and that it is not necessary to lead a life of either total contemplation, like some obsessed Buddhist monk, or to live the life of an activity freak, who drives himself to an early grave through compulsive restlessness; ‘distracted to distraction by distraction’, as T.S. Eliot would say. And probably striking a happy medium, like breathing in and breathing out, does seem the sensible choice.

But I like to think that one way might be better than another, even if it finally just comes down to a question of degree. Would I rather be a Socrates or a bungee-jumping white-water canoeist? Should I spend 30% or 70% of my time in reflection? You see, unlike many people I am in the happy position of being able to choose. I’m not married, my parents don’t expect me to provide or care for them in their old age. I have enough money from which to live for the immediate future without having to be busier than I would like.

So, should I spend my hours lolling in the grass, watching the clouds go by or instead lead an active, though unexamined life? Answers, please, on a postcard.


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