Learning to Love What Must Be Done

I am sure that most of you, like me, have fought hard to overcome a perpetual desire to relax and procrastinate when important tasks loomed.  Those of you who have never battled with procrastination--well, your problems are obviously of another sort.  In college, I recall several who transformed the practice of putting things off into art.  Do you remember the guy in your dorm hall who wouldn't begin his term paper till the night before it was due--and somehow still got an A?  These types make it tempting for all of us.

The etymology of procrastination is worth examining: the word comes from the Latin pro ( forward, on behalf of) and cras (tomorrow). Therefore, at its root, the word means pro-tomorrow.  Remember the maxim of the slacker: Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?  In contrast, we find encouragement of a different sort from the German poet Goethe: Cease endlessly striving for what you would like to do and learn to love what must be done.

I can sure do with a little more Goethe; and I am forced to reason that my children must need his advice, too.  Many voices call for our attention--and not all of them bad.  Sure, there are the typical scoundrels calling for us: hours of mindless TV programs, on-line surfing and chit-chat and other forms of "entertainment" that do little to exalt our minds or souls (no wonder Christopher Wren called TV "chewing gum" for the eyes).  There are some good TV programs available too--some unusually good programs on the History Channel (but also some weird ones).  We must admit, too, that amidst the ocean of drivel on the internet there are some exceptionally good sites and resources.  Rejecting good things for what is best can be sorely difficult--should the family stay home tonight or take off for a church service or activity?

Finding a routine helps--for the routine answers the questions before they come up.  Yes, we are going for a walk this afternoon--we always do.  Yes, we will start homework after dinner--that is our routine.  Crafting the routine, of course, is not necessarily easy.  I know many families have great, thoughtful, tested and re-tooled routines (could you send me a copy?).  Some families with younger children (or maybe only one young child) are probably still working on crafting a family rhythm and pattern.  Establishing a routine that works well is an ongoing enterprise, that keeps answering the question of what must go, stay or be added.

Once we have created a workable routine, another challenges becomes clear.  How do we maintain momentum, energy, stability and peace?  At least part of the answer comes from Goeth: we should love those things we must do.  Once our daily tasks become beloved tasks, the routine become less routine.  This, I believe, is something we can pass on to our children, like an attitude, for Goethe is encouraging a mindset not an activity.  If they see some measure of joy as we cook, clean, mow and repair, they are apt to find it easier to love (in a manner of speaking) clearing their plates, bathing and doing homework.  Strange as it is, they usually grow up to be like us.

Education, after all, is largely a matter of routine.  Nothing is mastered without regular visitation, review and study.  And education never stops.  If we can, we should cast the work our students do as a labor of love, a life-long love, and we should love what they do too.  Education will have its high moments, its epiphanies, break-throughs and moments of joy--much like a marriage.  But the larger tranquility of a good education comes from the regular labor of worksheets, translations and reading assignments, in the same way a good marriage grows on preparing a meal, raking the lawn and taking a walk. 

Once we have created a routine and learned to love it, we can also find yet even further comfort in knowing that a regular part of our routine must be to break from it.  We call these breaks of routine by various names, such as "dinner out,"  "week-ends" and "vacations."  These can be holy days in their own right, those special routines that are special largely because they are not daily, and because they are a ritual of celebration.  And we celebrate with the most poignant joy when our work is done (the hay is in the barn, the homework is all done--let's go to dinner).  Put another way, when we work well, we rest well. 

Christopher Perrin

Christopher Perrin

Christopher is the publisher with Classical Academic Press and the Director of Alcuin Fellowship, part of the Society for Classical Learning. You can reach him at cperrin@classicalsubjects.com