There was a time when the forests of the Niu Mountain were beautiful. But can the mountain any longer be regarded as beautiful, since being situated near a big city, the woodsmen have hewed the trees down? The days and nights gave it rest, and the rains and the dew continued to nourish it, and a new life was continually springing up from the soil, but then the cattle and the sheep began to pasture upon it. That is why the Niu Mountain looks so bald, and when people see its baldness, they imagine that there was never any timber on the mountain. Is this the true nature of the mountain? And is there not a heart of love and righteousness in in man, too? But how can that nature remain beautiful when it is hacked down every day as the woodsman chops down the trees with his ax? To be sure, the nights and days do the healing and there is nourishing air of the early dawn, which tends to keep him sound and normal, but this morning air is thin and is soon destroyed by what he does in the day. With this continuous hacking of the human spirit, the rest and recuperation obtained during the next are not sufficient to maintain its level, then the man degrades himself to a state not far from the beast’s. People see that he acts like beast and imagine that there was never any true character in him. But is this the true nature of man?”
– Mencius, via Lin Yutang.
No, Mencius, it is not! No way, man. (Although I’m not sure all the beasts are in such a bad state.)
I think we all know that getting rest is valuable. However, I often think of it as valuable in the sense that it is good for regaining productivity. Work productivity, artistic productivity, organizational productivity, or physical productivity. You rest, then once again you are able to dig and work toward some goal or other.
Mencius values rest in a different way. He’s talking about how resting helps you be yourself. And now that I think about it, he’s right. When I sleep as late as I’d like, and I don’t have an overwhelmingly packed day ahead of me, I notice more things. I am more amused by what I notice. I am more amused by myself. I’m more inventive because I get to act, rather than react; I think thoughts that can be said to be “from me” instead of thoughts that would most likely be thought by others because we are all forced to react to similar situations. Music tends to sound better, too.
I think we all understand the value of hard work and sacrifice. If there’s aspects of your life that you wish to change, you have to upset its balance. If there was an easy way to alter the equilibrium of your life, you would have used it by now, so all you have left is work – extra work beyond what you do to pay the bills. This work might be fulfilling, but it’s going to be taxing. Otherwise, it’s not work.
Ultimately, you’re trying to change your life so that you are more satisfied. You may create your greatest art or earn enough money to buy your house, boat, or truck packed with explosives, but you can end up less satisfied than when you started because you’ve crushed your natural self under constant toil.
Your “natural self” might not be any more “natural” than your toiling self, certainly. Perhaps “unencumbered self” might be a better term? Whatever the term, it’s a worthwhile side of most people.
I took some time off from work a while ago, and I didn’t accomplish as much as I had hoped I would during that time. Still, I was very satisfied with that time overall. I lived without pressure or weight during this period, and just that itself was surprisingly satisfying.
I can’t rank the importance of living unencumbered against the importance of reacting and sacrificing to change one’s circumstances. I don’t even know how often you really need to be in this state to be sufficiently satisfied. I am sure, though, that it is important enough to not forget completely, and that rest is not just for re-upping one’s productivity.