Don’t continue on hungry. When a pause comes, feed the muse by feeding the body.
I’ve been staring at this screen for fifteen minutes. Often, that is all I need to make a fair dent in the requisite word count for a post, but not today. Blankly at blank page, I stare. I start typing . . .
I recall eating lunch with my friend Pete. It has stayed in mind because the unusual hour of our dining . . .
No, all wrong. Let me try again . . .
Recently a New York Times column suggested that . . .
I can’t remember where I saved that column, and I’ll need the author’s name. I guess I’ll Google: “New York Times article about eating lunch.” Or I could just go a different direction . . .
. . .
And so it goes. And so I go. Or at least I should, off to find something to eat.
Virginia Woolf writes, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
John Kennedy Toole joins this remark to the thinking of Woolf: “I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
There is much wisdom in this.
But many of us ignore it. We wolf down makeshift meals at our desks, while vomiting out hurried thoughts. Or we neglect both the meal and thinking altogether and press on in futility against immovable wall rather than taking a break, making some cheese dip, being nourished, body and mind.
It is amazing how often I find myself bereft of quality thought and convince myself that the remedy is to think harder, to try more, or to argue louder. No, the fix is actually not in charging toward the problem, but toward a sandwich.
That would probably be sufficient as a stand-alone rule. But like most good truths—such as, “Hungry, Why Wait?”—there are connected verities. If a proper meal and break revitalizes my work and thinking, where are the lunches and breaks found for the other compartments of my life?
Or said better, as a man once instructed me, “Don’t let your output exceed your input.”
I cannot write one good sentence without reading pages of better ones.
I cannot minister well to the wounded without having my own wounds tended to.
I cannot go on running on empty, whether physically, emotionally, cognitively, or spiritually. Many of our spirits, our muses, are wandering about within us withered, haggard, spent. Below, for me, is how I take up and eat in these areas.
Physically – I’m lousy at exercising—at least what the word has come to mean: weights and DVD-led training sessions and marathons and beyond. But the age-old practice of a stroll out-of-doors still reinvigorates not only mind but muscles and joints. That and a weekly or so recess for a game of soccer with friends. What I find is that I hate the feel of exercise at the very first. Then, after a few moments or minutes, it enlivens, it frees, it builds momentum for not just body but my very soul.
The other form of feeding is, perhaps, even more important—sleep. We live in the age of achievement, so hours in bed are viewed as hours of waste. But this is a scientifically-proven (and anecdotally-chronicled) sham. Take the famous study of violinists that Malcolm Gladwell brought to the attention of the world. It was all about practice—that is what separated the best violinists from everyone else. But, not mentioned in Gladwell’s book, it was also sleep. The violinists in the study slept about an hour longer a night than the average American. They napped more too.
There are countless examples like this. And lessons to be gained from them. From Bill Clinton saying that his most notable mistakes in life (and he had a few!) were partially attributable to sleep deprivation; to the wisdom proffered by Ghandi: “Each night, when I go to sleep, I die. And the next morning, when I wake up, I am reborn.”
When hungry—eat. When stiff or tired—exercise; sleep.
Emotionally – For a few seasons in my current career, I’ve been alone—a wolf pack of one. It is awesome working like this. You make your own schedule, your own boundaries, you tend to always agree with yourself in conversation, you never have to worry about informing or misinforming or neglecting anyone. It was great. Except all the ways it wasn’t.
The biggest of these was the emotional build-up. A decent portion of my job was walking into the turbulent times of other people. Day after day of facing hard things with friends, and it became easy not to notice myself limping along with burdens. Added to that were the common job frustrations that come from accidental bureaucracies, subtle office politics, and simple personal ineptitude on my own part. Take all of these together and you could plate up a pretty deadly casserole.
So when it was time to hire, I got a confidant. The employee could do other things, of course, but one of the biggest things she provided was an emotional outlet. It is amazing what talking out tiny resentments will do to eradicate bitterness, to realize introspectively that the evil was actually within. And then there was the vital outlet for fears, for new things, for (gulp) feelings.
We need to express our feelings, to take them out of our pockets, put them out on a desk, and arrange and assess them. Doing this with another person is hugely beneficial.
When overburdened, share the load.
Cognitively – For me this plays out primarily in and through creativity. When I am creative, my soul is buoyant; my mind, bouncy. In this state, jokes and thoughts come easy; emotions are trustworthy guides to empathy and social behaviors made effortless. This authenticity builds trust with others and forges somewhat accurate connection points—I’m not straining or reaching or flexing. It is a sailboat pushed along gently by a sweet summer breeze, not some kayak beating back ceaselessly against ripping rapids.
I think this need for creativity is how it is for most people. Whether it is engineering a building, treating a patient, launching a campaign, fixing a car—when the mind is unencumbered and effortlessly engaged things flow. Problems are solved or worked through with vigor, with patience, with strategy.
My own creativity is stimulated in and through reading. It was a great frustration as a former instructor of Creative Writing to have such an uncreative solution for students. But all the research pointed to reading as the means and mode to improve as a writer. Reading good things and bad things. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: “’Tis the good reader that makes the good book.” Feeding that voracious muse. When I read theology, it helps me theologize throughout my day. When I balance that with a portion of the humor genre, it allows me not to take my theologizing (or self) too seriously.
Music is another ignitor of thought. Solitude yet another.
I can’t be sure what your own mind runs on, but I’m certain that you have enjoyable catalysts available to you. And it is on those we lean when thinking is slow. Was it Descartes who said, “I think therefore I am”? Perhaps there is a syllogism born from that for improved thought: if the thinking is elevated is the “I” likewise raised?
Feed your mind.
Spiritually – A song I like says, “My soul cries out for you.” How? How do we tune our soul with what our mind has chosen for belief? Well, the same way we grow in love toward others—we become proximate to them. We get to know them. We grow in that knowledge, and then steadily we take the knowledge of them and they begin to occupy our thoughts when absent. And this is what love is like. It is not only being with someone, but thinking about them when you are not.
For the spiritual, that means God no longer just permeates my Sunday morn—or whenever one practices ritual—but my wakeful Monday night too. That He joins me on my walk in the woods, when I’m curious about why, say, that one squirrel pauses its play to chirp and growl and bark at me? God is there in that moment too, and more and more of them.
The way I build this is through reading sacred texts, praying, and entering solitude. Obviously, this may take different forms per different religious or areligious bents, but to read about God, to pray to God, and to listen for His voice in the silence are spiritual bread to an oft malnourished soul.
My wife just came in and told me to remember lunch. This is not made up. She saw that we are creeping into the early afternoon, and she knows me. She knows I will go on hungry, allowing not only my body to descend momentarily, but to drag all the rest with it.
So, in more ways than one, bon appétit.
Don’t continue on hungry. When a pause comes, feed the muse by feeding the body.
(Quick Virus Application (QVA-19) – One thing this virus has done for many is change our habits. We are home more and Masked Singer is only on once a week. (Okay, I can’t go on just leaving that last line there. Nothing has made me more hopeful for Heaven than the advent and popularity of Masked Singer. If you don’t know what it is, it is celebrities doing karaoke with masks on. And horrendous commentary by other unmasked celebrities. That’s it. And America LOVES it. I shudder. I weep. I gnash teeth. Digression over.) Point is, we’ve changed the rhythm of our time. And it is likely that this is temporal—the season will change. So what we have is an optimal window for testing. We’ve been offered this unique span of a few months to see if reading in what was formerly commute time is helpful. To check if an episode of The Office during a lunch break is life-giving. To pick up the guitar that’s been gathering dust—and then, you know to play it. To eat different things at different times. To learn ourselves, our appetites, and what fuels us. To take a break for lunch. And then, to remember. On the other side of this thing, to pack what we learned into habitual pail and carry it along with us as we go forth.)