Why do we try to give more than we can afford -- in time and effort, or in emotional involvement? Merton suggests that sometimes it's because we aren't at peace with ourselves, and we want to think we're greater than we actually are:
A man who is not at peace with himself… projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him. Even when he tries to do good to others his efforts are hopeless, since he does not know how to do good to himself…This sort of activity, driven (as all things are) by mixed motives, often fails to yield the desired fruit. I may try to bless others, but if I'm agitated and on edge inside, then all that activity may leave my friends distressed and distracted, and myself disaffected and discouraged. Merton continues:
It is only when we are detached from ourselves that we can be at peace with ourselves. We cannot find happiness in our work if we are always extending ourselves beyond ourselves and beyond the sphere of our work in order to find ourselves greater than we are.from No Man Is an Island, pp. 120-121
(chapter 7, section 3)
Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory… It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.Merton, op. cit., p.122
I really like the comment that being little is being ourselves. Sometimes, the best thing I can give to others is myself -- my own true, little, self, not the spiritual giant I wish I were. Sometimes, "less" is more.
But reading Merton's words also reminded me of this passage from Haggai, who wrote about fruitless activity in another context:
Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: "Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but have harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it."Does that sound like a life filled with activity tainted by some unnamed disease?Haggai 1:5-6
Haggai was, of course, referring to material blessing (or the lack thereof) and his prescription was to stop neglecting the temple. Malachi also exhorts the Israelites to invest their treasure appropriately in the temple. I believe we can apply the insights from Haggai's and Malachi's prescription to our modern-day malaise: both then and now the issue is priorities.
In the time of these prophets, people went about their business without tending to the first priority, and their activities didn't yield the blessing they expected. In our day, many of us run around seeking blessing (yes, some of us put too much into ministry) without first tending to our own spiritual transformation.
In other words, sometimes the best thing I can do for others is to spend time pursuing and enjoying the Lord on my own sacred pathway (what's your favorite way to seek and find God? click here for a quiz) so that my cup can be filled and I'll have good things to share, rather than just a contagion of conflict.