Every fall I set aside an evening to sit back and watch my DVD of the movie “The Trouble With Harry.” This movie, the only feature-length comedy created by Alfred Hitchcock, revolves around a body – Harry – found in the autumn woods in rural New England. It features an amusing array of characters and a mystery plot that keeps you guessing who might be responsible for Harry’s demise.
But that’s not why I enjoy the movie year after year. What I really like about it is the feel of the movie: autumn in rural New England. It really captures the placid beauty of the time and place, with the colorfully glowing trees, softly falling leaves, the crispness of the autumn sunlight, and the leisurely pace of the residents.
No wonder autumn is such a popular time of the year for leaf peepers. But you don’t have to travel far to see colorful foliage; many neighborhoods are graced with a multitude of trees decked out in vivid colors.
Ironically, the ambiance of “The Trouble With Harry” is very different from our “normal” world today. Unlike the slow pace of rural New England residents, we seem to often be in a rush. We usually have so many things to do and so little time to do them that our focus becomes on what we have to get done – both at work and in our personal lives. Being productive becomes something of an obsession; with so much to do, there’s precious little time to waste.
Being surrounded by so many others who are also rushing about just amplifies things. The hyper energy of our co-workers/fellow shoppers/etc. raises our own energy and stress level. After a while we are so stressed out that we need a break from it all and have to get away to some place with a slower pace – perhaps like New England in the fall.
Unfortunately, if enough harried humans show up at one place at the same time (or if we try to cram too many activities into our schedules), we wind up bringing the hustle and bustle with us and the “break” winds up being as stressful as what we thought we were escaping from. The end result is we feel we need a vacation to recover from our vacation and the locals in vacation spots feel relieved when the “tourons” finally leave.
Stress and obsession with productivity also affects how we view people and things around us. It’s easy to become very resentful of anyone else who doesn’t seem to be “pulling his own weight” – as we feel we are.
At the same time, we can come to devalue any thing that doesn’t seem to add to our productivity. Pressed for time, we can come to dismiss as “pointless” the quiet appreciation of beauty, whether in a painting or a vivid display of colorful fall foliage. We may even come to resent trees and their falling leaves, and wish there weren’t any around to litter our yards.
But to me such yards and neighborhoods are missing something important…
…compared to neighborhoods with trees.
Maybe we need to stop and think for a minute about why our lives are so rushed and stressed out. Henry David Thoreau, in Walden, asked:
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.
Taking stock of our lives and slowing down is likely to alter our view of things. It might help us gain an appreciation of what’s important and what isn’t. It might also give us a better understanding of our world and the true value of things in it. An example of this alternative perspective was provided by Chuang-tse:
Hui-tse said to Chuang-tse, “I have a large tree which no carpenter can cut into lumber. Its branches and trunk are crooked and tough, covered with bumps and depressions. No builder would turn his head to look at it. Your teachings are the same – useless, without value. Therefore, no one pays attention to them.”
“As you know,” Chuang-tse replied, “a cat is very skilled at capturing its prey. Crouching low, it can leap in any direction, pursuing whatever it is after. But when its attention is focused on such things, it can be easily caught with a net. On the other hand, a huge yak is not easily caught or overcome. It stands like a stone, or a cloud in the sky. But for all its strength, it cannot catch a mouse.
You complain that your tree is not valuable as lumber. But you could make use of the shade it provides, rest under its sheltering branches, and stroll beneath it, admiring its character and appearance. Since it would not be endangered by an axe, what could threaten its existence? It is useless to you only because you want to make it into something else and do not use it in its proper way.”
Perhaps if we reflect on time and our lives, we will gain a awareness of what is truly valuable. We might gain a deeper sense of “productivity” – as something that enriches our souls rather than just our bank accounts and financial net worth. What should we really be working on, and toward?
Perhaps, with this greater awareness, we will come to revel in the beauty that surrounds us every day. And we’ll be willing to pay the price and do the work to allow that beauty to flourish around us. Whatever that price might be…