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The Modern Violence of Over-Work

Thomas Merton — Trappist monk, gifted writer, social critic, and spiritual virtuoso — has inspired many people. I’m one of them.

Merton wrote these incisive words in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander more than fifty years ago, but they are no less true today than when he wrote them.

“There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist…most easily succumbs: activism and over-work. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence.

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.

The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his (or her) work… It destroys the fruitfulness of his (or her)…work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

I first read this passage in 1970, when I was caught up in the frenzy of working as a community organizer in Washington, D.C. To this day, I re-read them often because they remind me to ask myself a critical question that I too easily forget: “What do I need to do right now to tend the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?”

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