Would the things you’re spending time on help you if you were alone in the wilderness living the life of a hermit?
I heard something like this question recently and loved it.
It may sound extreme to measure the worth of your actions by whether or not they’d be beneficial if you lived alone. Most of us live surrounded by family and friends and community and commerce, so why not measure the value of activities by how much they help us with these?
Because at the end of the day, one precedes the other. Everything you are and everything you do ultimately comes from the health of your inner life. The point of the hermit thought experiment (or the actual hermit life) is to strip all else away so you’re left with nothing but the company of your own inner life. This is the quickest way to see your true health.
If activities don’t contribute to improving the health of your heart, soul, mind, and spirit, whatever fruits they appear to have will fade fast. If activities improve your inner life and how well aligned you are with spiritual realities, they will yield manifold other benefits externally as well.
This is a penetrating question. It reveals not only how many activities are empty calories for the soul, but how many are actively destructive of a healthy and whole spirit. A heart filled with reactionary anger, or fueled only on the suffering of one’s enemies will struggle mightily in the absence of such external stimuli.
It is also a humbling question, even for the highly spiritual or disciplined self-help practitioner.
Many simple pleasures nourish the soul. Enjoyment of good food, laughter, making a fool of oneself to entertain a child, lavish generosity – these aren’t associated with stoical discipline, yet each adds richness and health to the heart. Other high-status activities like working for picture-perfect muscle tone or praise from strangers for intellectual depth turn out to be pretty useless to the hermit.
The point of this exercise isn’t to condemn, but to open the world up.
How many things that you feel you have to do to be a good person turn out to be making you nothing of the sort? This question frees you from so many cultural and political battles you feel pressured into taking a side on.
It also brings peace.
How many activities does your soul long for that you feel are just not useful enough to your daily life? Asking whether they’d make you someone better able to survive in solitude reveals their value and removes the guilt you feel for spending time there.
Try it out.