Every hour counts: a call to create beauty and other great things well

Prof. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. delivered the following message in the academic chapel of Crandall University this September. We thought Faith Today readers, who know Stackhouse from his books and our pages, would appreciate this encouragement to use our time right to create lasting beauty and recognize the “daily-ness” of life.

“The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne.” In his famous poem “The Parliament of Fowls,” Geoffrey Chaucer quotes the ancient Greek sage Hippocrates to tell us something not only about literature, but about life. Life is indeed short when one considers how long it takes to learn how to—

How to what?

Prof. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., a columnist in Faith Today, shares a vision for using our time very well.

How to do anything truly important and worthwhile. To compose a poem, yes, which is what Chaucer initially means. But also to do anything else in life that is of lasting significance.

To build a bridge that will stand strong and look beautiful for generations. To run a business—a business that provides useful and dignified work as it contributes something beneficial to the world. To form and maintain a marriage—a relationship of mutual care and perpetual stability within which children can grow up secure, confident, and wholesome.

Ryan Holiday in a recent book (Perennial Seller) provides some examples of what it takes to produce something special:

  • The Sistine Chapel took four years to paint. Four years. The planning and the building took even longer.

To be sure, that was back in the Renaissance. We move much faster nowadays, right?

  • The great American novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote 47 alternative endings to his classic work, A Farewell to Arms, and he rewrote the first part of that book more than 50 times.
  • Matthew Weiner, the creator of the TV series Mad Men, had to work on his idea for seven years until production began on the pilot episode. And then he had to wait another whole year before he could film the second one.
  • James Cameron wrote the treatment for Avatar, which would become the highest grossing film ever (surpassing another movie by James Cameron, Titanic), in 1994. He couldn’t produce it, though, until film technology caught up to his ideas. In fact, he had to help invent some of that technology. And when it was finally ready, it took four years to actually make the movie, which was released in 2009. That’s right: fifteen years later.

I remember a great speaker once being asked over the dinner table after he delivered a masterful oration, “How long did it take you to prepare that, sir?”

He smiled and said, “About five hours—and thirty years.”

And getting really good at doing something may not take Malcolm Gladwell’s proposed 10,000 hours. But it takes some thousands of hours to become a truly capable accountant, or chemist, or pastor, or friend.

When did Sidney Crosby or LeBron James or Serena Williams become so good that they were worthy to be named among the best ever at their sport? When they were wowing crowds as teenagers? When they were winning championships in their early twenties? No, even in the intensely compressed life of the athlete, it took years and years and years for them to hit their peak.

How long did it take to build Apple or Facebook or Amazon? Movies about them can compress our sense of time, but in fact it took years and years, even in this apparently lightning-fast age of dotcoms.

How long did it take to build the New England Patriots or FC Barcelona into a football dynasty? How long did it take to make Tesla Motors a significant force in the automotive world? Even at the fast pace of modern life, everything that is deeply important in life—art, business, sport, politics, friendship, family life, discipleship, character—takes a long time to produce.

And here is an interesting implication of that principle. Since we human beings experience “a long time” only minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day, that principle means that we cannot accomplish great things with a single burst of creativity and labour, no matter how fierce and sustained. Yes, a particular work of art, a particular speech, a particular performance can be a matter of focused short-term effort. But to produce something great, or even just competently good, requires years of preparation: education, training, practice.

Some Christians seem to make sport of quoting Friedrich Nietzsche when he is wrong, as he so often is. But he is also remarkably often right, as an acute, if extreme, observer of the world, and here we Christians would agree with him (quoting now from his book, Beyond Good and Evil):

The singular fact remains … that everything of the nature of freedom, elegance, boldness, dance, and masterly certainty, which exists or has existed, whether it be in thought itself, or in administration, or in speaking and persuading, in art just as in conduct, has only developed by means of … [a] long OBEDIENCE in the same direction[.] There thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living; … virtue, art, music, dancing, reason, spirituality– anything whatever that is transfiguring.

Recognizing this wisdom, we must embrace the “daily-ness” of life, and commit to making each day count. In fact, we need to embrace life’s “hourliness.” Each hour must count, for the only way to produce something great is to pile up the hours, and we pile up hours in only one way: hour by hour.

This might sound banal, but there is a crucial point here: Every hour counts, so how will you use it? For the only way to get what you want, if you want to get good at your life and produce good things in it, is to take the next hour and use it well, and the hour after that, and the hour after that.

We cannot defer performance for later, for the weekend, or for “the last minute,” or for “when I feel like it”—because you can’t climb a mountain by jumping as high as you can, even if you’re a good jumper who now really wants to succeed. Stand at Everest base camp and look up, and it won’t matter how talented or motivated you are. You can scale that peak only hour by hour.

You can’t compose a symphony worth people listening to unless you study and practice and write and edit for years—and each of those years is made up of days, and each of those days is made up of hours, spent exactly the way everyone spends them: one at a time, hour by hour.

“The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

Alas, the complementary principle is not symmetrical. It can take years to design and erect a magnificent building, and a matter of minutes to dynamite it into dust. It can take years to paint a beautiful art work, and a matter of seconds to knife it to shreds. It can take years to cultivate a loving, lovely marriage, and a single cruel sentence to eviscerate it. Destruction is so much easier and quicker than construction. And any idiot with enough motivation can wreck the most beautiful and helpful project.

Or just fail to pay attention, fail to keep your life on the road, and a single drunken or sleepy or just plain careless moment at the wheel undoes all your hard work…and you’re dead, or divorced, or disgraced, or downsized.

What follows from these two principles, then, for our lives as we begin this new academic and professional year?

First, we need to settle in for the long haul. In particular, we need to make plans over an extended period of time—not just for this afternoon, or for between now and the weekend, but at least until Christmas vacation. We need to break up our big projects into small projects and finally into hourly practices and projects.

For, again, there is no such thing as the great work produced in an hour. Even Jackson Pollock, walking around dripping paint on the canvas on the floor; even Paul McCartney, scribbling feverishly at the piano to compose a new tune; even Pablo Picasso, taking only half a dozen lines to produce his famous “Dove of Peace,” couldn’t possibly have produced that art in a matter of minutes without years/days/hours becoming the sort of person who could do that sort of thing.

Second, we need to beware the illusion of “time off.” Top singers know that they must guard their voices, and can never allow themselves the fun of shrieking on a roller-coaster or screaming at a hockey game. Top basketball players know that they must always shoot with proper form, even if they’re hacking around on the playground or the driveway, so that their muscle memory won’t get confused. And top politicians know that there is no such thing as a microphone or camera that isn’t on, there is no e-mail that doesn’t matter, and there is no joke that isn’t being recorded.

One false move. One foolish decision. One badly spent hour: with the wrong person, in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing—and all you have worked for over all those hours is undone.

We perform the way we practice. And we’re practicing to be who we’re going to be all the time—not just as athletes or musicians or scholars, but as workmates, friends, lovers, and Christians. Don’t let your guard down. Welcome to adulthood, where one is never “off duty.”

Third, we need to guard against our enemies. We have enemies, no matter how nice we think we are! An enemy is, etymologically, one who doesn’t love you (in amicus), who doesn’t seek your welfare, who doesn’t want you to succeed. An enemy is anyone and, by extension, anything that impedes your progress toward your worthy goals.

That’s why we say,“With friends like that, he doesn’t need enemies.” That’s why we say that someone is her own worst enemy, and she can’t seem to get out of her own way. Anyone or anything that is slowing you down, pulling you off-centre, distracting your attention, and taking hours that should be spent here and causing you to spend them there is—by definition—an enemy.

And that can be your roommate. And that can be your mom or dad. And that can be your boyfriend or girlfriend. That can even be your coach or professor—anyone who is, no matter what their motives, drawing you away from spending this hour aimed at success, at excellence, at accomplishing what you are called to do.

Yes, “called.” We believers would say, “called by God.” Your calling is to connect yourself with the world such that you accomplish the most good you can. And you do the best you can by becoming the best version of yourself that you can be.

So last Friday night in the hours between supper and breakfast: Did you spend it becoming a better version of yourself? This morning before this chapel service: Did you spend those hours practicing something useful or beautiful, preparing for a lifetime of effectiveness, behaving like a serious person who wants to accomplish serious things?

The great Chinese sage Lao-zi is often misquoted as he is supposed to have said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” What he actually says, however, is something like this: “Even the longest journey must begin where you stand.” The great projects of our lives begin, not with action, but with silent resolve formed while we are standing still, or sitting still in a chapel service. What will you resolve this hour, and every hour after this year?

One of Christianity’s greatest teachers, the apostle Paul, told one of his best students to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.” The older, King James translation of the Bible put the same thing slightly differently, as it says, “Study to show yourself approved to God.”

Either way, that’s what a Christian university stands for: to help you become someone God can approve of, someone whose work and whose whole life is one about which you will not be ashamed.

And how do you do your best, how do you study, to become such a person and have such a life?

One hour at a time.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Ph.D, is the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies and Dean of Faculty Development at Crandall University in Moncton, N.B. He is also a regular contributor to Faith Today

 

 

 

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