We’re working this summer on our Mother Culture habit, right? This is a move in the right direction — every day takes us closer to our goal. And yet how often I hear, Oh, if I only had more time!
I was pleasantly surprised to read in The Intellectual Life that there is an upside to limited time. The author, Sertillanges, begins by admitting that all of us who are called to intellectual work may not actually have the luxury of a life devoted to study. Some men, he says, have to earn their living, and this requires time spent doing things other than reading and thinking and writing and all the other things we do to acquire knowledge and wisdom. Shockingly, the man who must work, and yet craves time with his books, is actually at an advantage.
[L]iberty [(by “liberty” he means “lots of leisure time”)] presents pitfalls that rigorous obligations may help us to avoid. A stream narrowly hemmed in by its banks will flow more impetuously. The discipline of some occupation is an excellent school; it bears fruit in the hours of studious leisure. The very constraint will make you concentrate better, you will learn the value of time, you will take eager refuge in those rare hours during which, the claims of duty satisfied, you can turn to your ideal and enjoy the relaxation of some chosen activity after the labor… (pp. 8-9)
He goes on to use the example of the hare and and the tortoise. The hare represents the man (or woman!) with endless hours for reading and thinking. The lack of limits puts him at a disadvantage. Like the hare, he’s tempted to think he’s ahead and stops for a nap. And how many of us do that? Given too many free hours, most of us don’t actually study more — we waste our time on social media instead (not that I think all social media time is a waste — you know the brainless scrolling I refer to here).
The tortoise is the man who has many duties. The fact that his time is so full makes his study hours so much more valuable to him that he does not waste and squander them.
We feel like our lives limit our ability to learn, but what if we’re wrong? What if the fact that we have so much to do is exactly why we’re able and determined to prepare our reading lists in advance, schedule the time, and even print a habit tracker to keep ourselves accountable?
The many duties and occupations that fill our days are not our only limits. Solitude, too, can be a limit — or at least feel like one. I know that some of you identify with this because you’ve emailed me about it. You long for a Charlotte Mason group or a Scholé Sisters group — you wish to read and study in community, to enjoy discussion. But instead, you’re isolated except for a handful of online activities. You feel that no one you know wants to read and learn the way you do.
Sertillanges mentions this, too! Groups, lectures to attend, and conferences — these can all be distractions as well as benefits, he says. Just like the unlimited time can bring out our undisciplined natures, he says that those who have too much access to groups and lectures tend, again, to time wasting:
As to lectures, those who can have them do not follow them or follow them but ill, if they have not in themselves, at need, the wherewithal to do without such fortunate help. (p. 10)
Did you catch that? Your solitude cultivates in your soul exactly what you need to be able to take full advantage of a lecture in the first place!
And besides, he reminds us, we are never fully alone:
Society, stimulation, one finds these in spirit in one’s solitude: the great are there, present to those who call on them, and the great ages behind impel the ardent thinker forward. (p. 10)
Sertillanges’ encouragement to us is to never allow our limitations to stop us; instead, we let them discipline us. They empower us to greater focus, and this is a wonderful gift.
Learn to make the best use of that limited time; plunge every day of your life into the spring which quenches and yet ever renews your thirst. (p. 11)
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