Thursday, August 12, 2004

Horror vacui

If I get too used to sitting quietly, won't I become a slob?

I'm training myself to sit and do nothing. I can pretty much handle stretches of ten minutes now, and I just pulled off a twenty. It's not that my mind wanders -- of course it does, but that's OK since I'm not trying to meditate -- but that I'm constantly assailed by temptations to get up and do something, anything. These urges are so powerful because they're in league with my fear of where a liking for inaction might lead.

I've avoided gambling, smoking and drugs because I might like the experience too much. Even just one taste, and I'll slip down the slope to perdition. (Boy, those adolescent anti-vice ads do work, it seems, at least for some of us.) Logically this doesn't make sense, but emotionally the path is clear: "If I take one pull at the slot machine, I won't be able to stop. I'll enjoy the rush so much that I'll go gambling again, then go every week, then every day. I'll lose my job, and then all my money. I'll turn to crime to support my habit, first shoplifting small items, then robbing widows, and finally becoming a merchant banker. After a humiliating trial I'll be locked up and become Mad Dog Giloollie's love slave, only to escape, go on a rampage, be cornered by the Feds, kill three innocent policemen and two guilty women-and-children in a hostage shoot-out, be shot in the guts and die after seventeen hours of agony."

I'm more tempted by the quiet life than by the more glamorous vices. In his entry for January 31 in "A Vow of Conversation: Journals 1964-1965", Thomas Merton writes:

I can imagine no greater cause for gratitude on my fiftieth birthday than that, on it, I woke up in a hermitage. Fierce cold all night, certainly down to zero, but I have no outdoor thermometer.

Inside the house, it almost froze, though embers still glowed under the ashes in the fireplace. The cold woke me up at one point, but I adjusted the blankets and went back to sleep. What more do I seek than this silence, this simplicity, this "living together with wisdom"? For me, there is nothing else, and to think that I have had the grace to taste a little of what all men seek without realizing it! All the more obligation to have compassion and love, and to pray for them.

What a prospect! But to become hermit would mean giving up my life with S., even if I were to have the courage and compassion to take that path. Sitting and doing nothing inches me closer to that life, but I don't want to pay the price of making that change.

More mundane and more direct, though, is the worry that getting used to doing nothing will make it harder to do something -- anything. I'm an Energizer Bunny powered by a Protestant Work Ethic and a Catholic Guilt Ethic, thumping along determinedly to nowhere in particular. If I stopped running I'd surely become a redneck wife-beater passing my days drinking beer on the porch with a mangy dog while the weeds grow knee-high around the rusted Mustang in the yard.

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