“They will say commonly, meddle not with many things, if thou will live cheerfully. Certainly there is nothing better than for a man to confine himself to necessary actions; to such and so many only. … For since it is so, that most of those things, which we either speak or do, are unnecessary; if a man shall cut them off, it must needs follow that he shall thereby gain much leisure, and save much trouble, and therefore, at every action a man must privately by way of admonition suggest unto himself, What? May not this that I now go about, be of the number of unnecessary actions? Neither must he use himself to cut off actions only, but thoughts and imaginations also, that are unnecessary for so will unnecessary consequent actions the better be prevented.” ~Marcus Aurelius
What is or isn’t a necessary action is a complex matter.
There are those who argue that we should take no actions at all in the sense of trying to change or prevent anything. If we see someone being murdered, robbed, or raped, we should just observe and do nothing. They say that everything is happening as it should and we have no business trying to interfere. I call that the driftwood philosophy. The idea that we should just float through live like a piece of driftwood and contribute nothing. Be as worthless and as pointless as we possibly can.
On the other side, there are those who think we should get involved with everything and learn from everything. Nothing is taboo or pointless. The problems with this philosophy are two. First, you wear yourself out trying to do too much and consequently accomplish little. Second, by trying to do everything, you do things that should not be done at all. Like the punk in Washington D. C. some years ago who shot a sixteen-year-old boy who was just mowing the lawn. When caught, he said he did it because he had never killed anyone before and wanted to know what it felt like. Some knowledge is not worth gaining.
Our Own Necessary Action
Exactly how much each of us should get involved is something that varies and we each need to decide for ourselves. Some things can help. As Aurelius says, before getting involved ask if the action is truly necessary. Sometimes, though, even if action is necessary, we may not be the best ones to act. If we don’t have the skills and knowledge to resolve the situation, it is often best for us to let someone else handle it. Even if we have the skills, there may already be enough people working on the problem and we should move on to something else. Also, if we spread ourselves too thin, we don’t devote enough time to anything to really help.
It’s a lot like trying to decide which charities to support. There are so many charities that do good work that if we supported each with only a dollar, it would cost thousands! So we all pick just a few to help with. We must do the same with our actions.
Necessary Action for Leisure
Aurelius seems to imply that by limiting our actions we gain more leisure time—and that is a good thing. That may seem contradictory to some because they think leisure time is not necessary. They are wrong. We all need leisure time. We all need to unwind. We all need to rest and relax physically and mentally occasionally. Such action is necessary for our sanity and physical strength. Here, however, it is also important to choose our leisure activities carefully.
If we are physically exhausted, a very physical leisure activity is not wise. Relax. Sit on a beach. Read a good book while sunbathing. If we are mentally worn out, we need physical activities that don’t require a lot of thinking.
Necessary Action for the Spiritual Student
For the person developing spiritually, this wise choice of actions is even more important. We also don’t want to wear ourselves out, or spread ourselves too thin. But we also need to be concerned about the spiritual results of all of our actions. Some actions make us move spiritual, others less. A few are neutral. As spiritual students we must choose mostly those activities that help our spiritual growth. We may also choose activities that are neutral occasionally. But avoid those that are anti-spiritual.