In the Merchant’s Wife: A Letter, Ezra Pound captures the intense feeling of a young woman as she awaits the return of her husband from a prolonged business trip. As the months pass and the seasons change, she experiences her life as one of loneliness: passing time offers no solace, only the sense that “I grow older.” Yet, all around her, there is evidence of the vibrant life and beauty of the world unfolding through the seasons. “The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind./The paired butterflies are already yellow with August.” But she sees only through eyes of longing for an imagined future.
This past week, I sat on a crowded Metro train, stopped between stations in a featureless tunnel, waiting for the train ahead of us to clear the station. Some with closed eyes listened to music, others sat immersed in newspapers, but the majority of people sat or stood with vacant expressions, eyes fixed and staring at some private vision. Here and there a conversation, but mostly silent enduring. Fair enough. There is not much to look at, let alone enjoy, in the dark, concrete tubes through which we traveled. But as we exited the station, ascending towards the light at the top of the escalator, a brilliant blue sky arched over us, dotted with puffs of clouds. It grew into a great dome as we stepped out into the full sun of a high summer morning. Around us gentle yellow swirls of spinning leaves reminded us that autumn has officially arrived and is beginning to declare herself. I stood in a crowded square amid the same blank faces and hunched shoulders.
I did not have to look far to see the cause of this malaise. Surrounded by identical office buildings, I watched hoards of people exiting the subway, making their way towards airless cubicles, each one dominated by a computer screen, where they would join the great bureaucracy. Like Emile Zola’s coal miners, they wore the faces of those who are resigned, those for whom the joy and zest for life has been carefully tucked away until exiting from the subway in some distant suburb at the close of day. There, life can begin again.
How sad to spend our lives in suspension. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes writes: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.” The Preacher gives us no prescription for changing the modern workplace, no amulet to ward off unreasonable demands, no powerful drug as an escape from boredom. Instead he returns to basics. Contentment is an inner disposition, not an external condition. When the soul is at rest with itself, it cannot but be at rest with its environment. This rest is hard fought, but can be won by those who seek after it. It begins with the very difficult step of giving the burden to someone else. Difficult because stilling the inner struggle goes against a lifetime of habitual striving for recognition, respect, reward, and all of the things we have been taught to desire.
When Jesus says: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own,” he is not advising us to disengage from life, nor to worry excessively about today. On the contrary, he is counseling us to live in the present, to see the opportunities as well as the problems, and to trust that with God’s help, we will have the resources to deal with both. And in the greater context of the Sermon on the Mount, he is reminding us that we share this space. It is through others that we find our way to peace – not through dependency, but through engagement. Take the time this season to engage a stranger, share a moment in the sun, a walk in the park, a laugh in the elevator. Jesus would. That is what is mean by “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” It is the yoke of fellowship and the shared burdens of life. The promise is that “you will find rest for your souls.”
The alternative is to numbly pass the time with only the sense “that I grow older.”