“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is perhaps the most famous opening line of one of the greatest works of literature of all time – Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which chronicles the lives of a group of aristocrats amidst the unfolding political and social change of late nineteenth-century Russia. While every unhappy family may be uniquely unhappy, so too every reader of this novel will likely be moved in his or her own way. For me, it was the strong gravitational pull towards physical labor for Konstantin Levin, a nobleman and landowner, that was most noteworthy. In one particularly memorable account, Konstantin decides to spend the entire day mowing his land alongside the peasants that work for him.
I was reminded of that scene this past weekend. The falling of leaves from the trees in our backyard that marks the change of seasons had its final act, depositing on the lawn and patio what seemed like an entire forest of burnt orange and red maple leaves. Waking up early on Saturday as I usually do, I began to feel an urge to pull out the rake and broom and restore the backyard to its formerly kempt condition. I hesitated for a while, worried that I was merely trying to occupy my time so as to avoid having to simply just be. And then it dawned on me. There was a deeper reason for the urge I was experiencing. Something similar to what I imagine Konstantin felt. Something that I needed to pay attention to.
There is something primordial about physical labor. We spend so much of our time in the modern world distracted by the busyness of life. Manual work can be an antidote to this, allowing us to reconnect to our bodies – to remember that we are corporeal beings. Getting our hands dirty by doing something physical can also be a deeply meditative experience. It is one of the few things that enable us to be fully present. And, if we allow it, to be fully alive.
As I began to rake the leaves into large piles, I started to reinhabit my body. I experienced a slowing down and integration with what I was doing. In some ways, the physical act of raking and I became inseparable. I realized the joy of being fully present with my endeavors. Rather than see it as a chore or a needed distraction from boredom, I embraced the activity wholly. I didn’t rush it, nor did I force myself to slow down. I noticed the vivid colors and distinct sounds of the leaves. It’s not too much of an overstatement to say that much of what I seek in life was contained in that activity – namely, the capacity to be present and fully attuned to what is directly happening in any given moment.
We have outsourced so many of the basic activities of being human. Our food production. The construction of our homes and furnishings. The making of our clothing. There seems to be an app or service to do almost anything we want or need. I’m not suggesting a return to the pre-industrial world or to give up the many luxuries of the modern era. But as I allowed myself to be present to the pure joy of engaging in the simple task of caring for my own environment, I realized I harbor a deep, unmet need to engage in certain basic activities of living.
The holidays are approaching, and with them comes downtime. Our ability to be present and fully alive when we have little to do is one of the secrets to living an extraordinary life. As I’ve written before, it was Blaise Pascal who said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” If anything, my backyard experience brought me slightly closer to not just being able to sit quietly alone with nothing to do, but to truly enjoy it. All I needed was some physical labor to remind me of the joy and aliveness of being fully present.