“Modern life feels rather undead.” So goes the subtitle of a 2010 New York Times piece comparing knowledge work to zombie movies. Zombies aren’t particularly scary on their own. They shamble thoughtlessly and noisily along. But, en masse, they become truly terrifying. In the same way, our modern inputs (emails, texts, Facebook), when taken together, threaten us with streams of endless commitment. We feel like we have no choice but to find the highest perch and headshot the tasks one at a time, hoping we don’t run out of ammunition.
The article itself is depressing and apt. We wonder: is there another way?
At the suggestion of my Canon to the Ordinary, I recently finished listening to (and have started re-listening to) Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less via Audible.com. McKeown suggests that there is another way, the way of the “essentialist.”
McKeown defines three myths of the “non-essentialist” and gives their essentialist counterparts. The non-essentialist believes that he doesn’t have a choice, that every single zombie must be killed. The essentialist believes she does have a choice, that she can choose where to put her efforts and energy.
The non-essentialist believes that more is better and tries to take on every good thing that comes his way. The essentialist believes in doing “less, but better” and chooses to focus on those things that allow her to work at her highest level of contribution.
The non-essentialist believes that he can do everything. The essentialist knows that difficult trade-offs are a part of life and instead of asking, “How can I do both?” asks “Which problem do I want to take on?”
The essentialist imposes self-defined limitations for the sake of the good she wants, her “essential intent.” She explores many options before deciding on the one that will have the biggest impact. She eliminates the non-essential in order to focus on those things that really matter. She makes the essential tasks and relationships routine, in order to live a life of greatest contribution.
And, surprisingly, the life of the essentialist, McKeown says, is not one of painful self-denial, though metanoia does require sacrifice. The essentialist lives a life of deep happiness, satisfaction, and joy. She lives a life that matters.
Sometime in the course of listening to this book, I realized that what McKeown outlined was a life of what we might call secular holiness. Oriented on her goal, the essentialist ruthlessly but kindly strips away everything that distracts her. She opens herself to play and freedom and joy, all because she has chosen to live within the limits necessary to make her highest contribution.
Early in the book, McKeown goes back to the root of the word “priority.” He said it entered the English language as a singular word and meant the one thing that must happen prior to everything else. It took three hundred years before we started talking about “priorities.” But, it is impossible to have more than one priority. Secular holiness focuses on the one priority at the expense of all others. It constantly asks, “What’s most important, right now?”
Late in the book, McKeown explicitly makes the connection of essentialism to holiness when he walks through the lives of some of the most influential people in the world, including the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, Gandhi, and Jesus. All lived essentialist lives, he says, focused solely on the end to which they believed humanity is called. McKeown doesn’t believe that religious holiness is necessary for human happiness, but he does believe that a life of secular holiness is.
I found this book painfully convicting. Essentialism prompted me to prune my to-do list by 75%, which was a surprisingly difficult task, emotionally and physically. One of the hardest lessons for this priest was the reality of trade-offs. I want to believe that I can accomplish every good thing that comes my way, but a trade-off isn’t between a good thing and a bad thing. Trade-offs involve sifting and prioritizing one of two good things. When a church obligation conflicts with a family obligation, I am forced to make a trade-off, one that isn’t always easy. I can’t be in both places at once, even though I desperately want to be.
In other words, the way to be happy in the modern zombie apocalypse is to deny its inevitability. We are not truly victim to an onslaught of mindless tasks. We can choose. We can do less but better. We can make the trade-offs for things that really matter. Life truly begins when we start trading in the good for the best. And living the life God has given us is what holiness is all about.
The featured image is “Zombies invade San Francisco!” (2006) by Scott Beale. It is licensed under Creative Commons.