Don’t just do something, stand there


Philosophers and theologians at least since the time of Thomas Aquinas have debated the merits of the active life versus the contemplative life. Of course, philosophy and theology being essentially contemplative pursuits, that conversational deck was probably stacked from the beginning.

But while there is a long and rich tradition celebrating the merits of contemplation, for Americans the balance was tipped from the start in favor of action. Our Puritan forbears were suspicious of inactivity. In their world view, one confirmed one’s status as a member of the elect by achieving worldly success, and that meant getting out there and doing something. Idleness is the devil’s workshop, after all.

Our secular folk wisdom, epitomized in Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” amplified that sentiment. You don’t get healthy, wealthy and wise by sitting around gazing at your navel.

Americans are doers. We tamed the wilderness, cured smallpox and put a man on the moon. We measure ourselves by our accomplishments. Unless you’re applying for an academic job, employment counselers advise, don’t begin a résumé with your education. Tell them what you’ve done.

Of course, thinking and doing are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, most successful projects result from careful planning and preparation.

Want to build a new bank? Try pulling together a discussion group to talk about different possibilities.

Want to make a street safer? Before you start digging, think long and hard about the likely effects of various interventions.

Want to create a new tattoo? Before putting needle to skin, it might be wise to make a sketch and think things through.

Want to discover some new dinosaur fossils? Before you rush off to Montana, maybe you should spend some time in the lab looking at geological maps.

Want to confirm a new bird sighting? It might be a good idea to study your field guide first.

Want to build the world’s tallest K’NEX roller coaster? You better put a lot of thought into your design.

While often contemplation enhances accomplishment, sometimes it’s a precursor to nonaction. The Japanese sculptor Atsuo Okamoto, who participated in MN Rocks, a stone-carving symposium held this summer in St. Paul, believes that a stone is a living entity. Once he had a large piece of granite to split. But as he thought about it over several days, he realized that the stone did not want to be split. Eventually he gave in to the stone’s wish.

Don’t just do something, stand there.