E.B. White once said, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” You might recognize that name as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. If you were an English major in school you might also know he co-authored The Elements of Style (which we fondly call “Strunk & White”) or that he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine. Imagine writing a reference guide that has sections like “Elementary Rules of Usage” and “Rules of Composition” and a story of love and loyalty about a girl named Fern, her pig Wilbur, and a large grey spider.
Two ends of the literary spectrum, if you ask me. And so I think his quote must have truly come from the heart- like enjoying the world by pondering the magic of childhood and life on the farm, and improving the world by dictating our usage of the English language. You might even say it is two ends of the human spectrum. He held the paradox of being and doing, reflection and action. Isn’t life full of the tension that exists between who we are and what we want to be? What we want and what we have? What we see and what we wish would be true?
To hold tension in a life giving way is no small task. It is much easier, even rewarded in our culture, to stay busy. If we stop too long to think we might be overwhelmed, or discouraged, or distracted from the day’s to-do list. We just work hard until our annual vacation, and then we rest ourselves so that we can plunge right back into busyness.
But what if reflection and action were so intertwined that one was always present in the other, sort of like the Chinese symbol of Ying and Yang? If that were the case, reflection would not be a luxury we indulge during our vacation week at the beach, but a practice in which we regularly engage, because the insight we gain drives our actions in the world. And our actions affect the world in a way that requires our continued reflection.
With all due respect to Mr. White, I’m going to suggest that planning our day wouldn’t so hard if we understood being and doing as integrated, interrelated elements. And when we get it right, we feel fully, wonderfully alive.