It's an interesting conundrum that we have the luxury to spend time in our day thinking about if we are really using that day well, really "living." It was not so long ago that people simply had to work to live. I'm not arguing that they had a better quality of life, as I have never had to work the earth just so that I can eat. Yet, the stress we create for ourselves in a culture of leisure is interesting. It's as if we do not want to lose touch with our forefathers' way of life, since we know they worked so hard to make our lives possible. Yet, we do not live the same way that they did.
It begs the question, will our grandchildren be worrying about whether they are "living life to the fullest"?
A quote from the HBO "John Adams" comes to mind:
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."
So what is it that keeps eating away at the mind, that little tick that you can't seem to get rid of? Or do we not all feel that impulse to "do more"? Perhaps it is a personality trait more than it is a universal norm for man. Yet, I feel convinced that we all have a natural inclination to feel that we must go, or do, or see, or create.
What is this impetus? Perhaps it has something to do with the natural order. Consider our position in the natural world, in the food chain. The dog comes to man because he is in need of a master, just as that dog may very well be capable of being a "master" to sheep or some other herd of animals. Even within humanity, children are not only disciplined because it brings about good behavior. Children need boundaries, need guidance. We carry that need for parameters with us into adulthood. We may obey civil laws, moral laws, natural laws, personal laws - yet we are subject to some things higher than us whether we acknowledge their power over us or deny it. The earthquake, for example, will still shake the earth whether or not we admit that it cannot be controlled.
So if we are over a great many things in the natural world, which we are, such as the inanimate objects and the lesser animate creatures (vegetable and animal life), this dominion requires a response from us. Every relationship requires a response from us. We begin with the most basic of relations - the dependent child to his or her mother. Every relation we have from that point on, whether sought out or "by birth," is one that puts a demand on us. We are free to foster, nurture and grow that relationship, or we are free to ignore, deny and hurt that relationship. Yet, any reaction to it is a response, and so we see that we are never really free from relation as long as we live.
This relation that extends to the animal and vegetable world is real as well. We have a dominion over them. This dominion can be exercised with responsibility or with cruelty, as we know. There are many in our day and age who are very familiar with this dominion, as it is a part of their livelihood. Whether they raise animals for food or grow crops or have some other share in bringing forth natural resources from the earth, they are well aware of their situation in the natural order. They also are aware that while they may be on top of the "food chain," they are still subject to nature as created and natural beings.
I am beginning to think that perhaps some of modern man's confusion with his use of his time and life comes from a detachment from the natural world. I do not mean this to be an accusation that technology is bad or has stolen something precious. I would not be able to share these thoughts if I did not have modern technology at my fingertips. Yet, I do think that we may not realize just how connected we really are to the world, and I believe this may be part of that "natural impulse" that we find stressful or confusing.
The relationship we have to the natural world is present because we are creatures who are born into this world. While we are the only rational animals, the only ones with reason and free will, that does not negate that other creatures are living beings to whom we have some relation - one of dominance but in turn, one of caring and nurturing. It is the stewardship that we have been given for the earth and her creatures that I believe presses upon us at times. I am beginning to believe that it is this particular "demand" made upon us by an existing relationship (to the natural world) that we do not always know how to respond to. When we feel that we need to "do" something, to "go" somewhere, to "make" something or "create" something... I believe this has something to do with our lifestyles that remove us from the natural order.
Certainly, we cannot all go and farm. Many of us do not have the ability, the money, the talent, or even the desire. Yet, there are so many small ways that we can still participate in that dominance and stewardship. Growing some herbs in our kitchen window, some boxed vegetables in our back yard, raising a pet, being part of a community group that cares for public parks and forests, etc... are all small but real ways we still "give back" something. Even simply admiring the beauty of nature from time to time - walking, exercising, hiking, boating, swimming, etc... and enjoying not only the activity but the world that makes the activity possible. Small moments of appreciation can foster a greater understanding of the gift that the world really is.
There are many other just and viable answers to the "question at the back of our minds" concerning what we are doing with our lives and if we are "really living." I am not exploring all of them here. I think the most frequent (and often the most accurate) answer given concerns our relationship with God and our response to his invitation to know him, love him and serve him. But here I wanted to explore another piece of the puzzle, one that I think is legitimate. Perhaps we can begin to answer a larger question by answering a smaller question - that is, by understanding our relationship with the world and its creatures and by exercising our stewardship over them, we can then better understand ourselves in context to God who is the creator of all of these things and ourselves, and who has deigned that we be the stewards over his creation. Also, in exercising our stewardship and dominance, we find a small imitation of God who made us in his image and likeness. He is the Creator and yet he allows us to share in that power by things such as growing plants that bear fruit. It is a small participation, to be sure, but it does help us to better know ourselves and our Creator.
Perhaps we are to a point in history that John Adams did not include in his thoughts. We have reached the point where man can study all of those things if he desires, or at least, some men are so privileged. Therefore, as some men have the luxury to determine what it is they will spend their lives pursuing, it seems that some may need to choose those "less fine" arts so that those arts will not be lost and so that mankind will continue to benefit from their existence. While it is a luxury to study painting, we cannot all study painting, for how will we eat? Likewise, the world still needs philosophy and natural history, even if it benefits from poetry. Therefore, it only means that we must work for a balance in a world where we have such privilege, to maintain ever reaching for great heights while simultaneously holding fast to those foundations upon which our current culture stands.
Perhaps most of us, we must keep asking ourselves the same question, revisiting it time and again throughout our lives... are we really living?