Very few calendars contain the entry “6:30a.m.—Meditate” or “12:00p.m.—Ponder Intently” or the occasional “9:00p.m.—Think Deliberately.” Rather, we see them filled with soccer games, community service, doctors’ appointments, and visits to the in-laws. All good things, but not necessarily meditative or contemplative exercises.
Ordinarily, our planning extends only so far as our day’s deeds. Even our unplanned time can slip away: intervening moments we fill in with meals, conversations, talk radio, or some free game (Candy Crush seems pretty popular on the subway these days). Very rarely do we plan to think. So I’m advocating for the insertion of calendar entries like those listed above lest our days get filled with tasks that crowd out the serious business of being human.
To be a good man, woman, or child means to live well. This goes beyond eating, drinking, and breathing; surviving is merely the baseline for human flourishing. But how exactly can humans hope to flourish?
There is no generic way to live well for everything under the sun. Rather, to live well means to live well as this type of thing, whether it be an artifact (in an analogous sense) or an organism (which lives in the strict sense). For artifacts, “living well” means to work well towards the purpose for which they’re made. So for an axe, to “live well” means to cut well.
Organisms, since they are more complex, are not evaluated solely on efficiency. For a plant, to live well means to metabolize nutriment, grow, and reproduce well. For an animal there are additional qualifications. To live well, an animal makes full and expressive use of its senses and emotions (to be a particularly affectionate cat or protective dog). If a dog had excellent digestion and an uncanny ability to sire pups, we wouldn’t necessarily think it a good dog. But a dog that protects the home of his owner, offers delightful companionship, and indeed proves a friend makes him an excellent dog.
Now with humans, this same observation holds true. Our excellence accompanies what is distinctive and highest about us—the immaterial world of mind and will. We are rational animals, so an excellent human person will be one who thinks and wills excellently.
On this basis, the most important “thing” that we do each day is to think and will, and yet rarely do we consider the matter in these terms. From fatigue to fatigue, we can pass through entire days without ever having to exercise those spiritual powers that make us truly human and give breadth and depth to human existence.
As a Dominican friar, I offer prayer (which St. Thomas Aquinas characterizes as “the ascent of the mind to God”) at regular times each day, but you need not dismiss the foregoing as a merely covert rational preamble to an ultimately theological artifice. Indeed prayer, according to St. Thomas, is the highest mode of thought in that it puts man in dialogue with God, the only decisively satisfactory object, but the proposal of thought is a good that anyone—religious or otherwise—should deem worthwhile. Aristotle taught that “[We] must strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us [reason]; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything.” Such is the grandeur of so a high a calling, one written into our souls and vibrating at every level of our being, for “reason more than anything else is man.” By thinking, therefore, we decisively inhabit the full breadth our nature and manifest our dignity as the crown of creation.
So, though it may expose you to the mockery of less existentially minded friends, put thought on your schedule. While the planner may begin to look a little like the horarium of your local monastery, the freedom to do that for which we are made puts the tasks in context and saves the day from tedium.