The philosopher Aesop once related a story about a farmer who discovered among his livestock a goose that had laid an egg of pure gold. Every morning the same thing occurred, and soon the farmer found himself a wealthy man. But as he grew rich he grew greedy; and thinking to get at once all the gold the goose could give, he killed it and opened it, only to find nothing.
In a sense, we are all our own golden goose. The fruits of our labors enrich us. But in this society of round-the-clock business and nonstop entertainment, few of us take time to replenish ourselves, and in doing so end up damaging the very engine of our success—a healthy body, mind, and spirit.
Nurturing our inner selves begins with having a spiritual base rooted in faith in the Creator and love for all mankind. When I was a child growing up in Marion, South Carolina, my parents instilled in my siblings and me a spiritual regimen that included daily prayer and weekly fellowship at church. I didn’t know it at the time, but the structure of prayer and contemplation would stand me in good stead over the years.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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As life’s storms have come—as they do in everyone’s life—I have found refuge in my faith in God and the words of the Bible. As the Scriptures would have it, the principles of my faith kept me tethered to my foundation as the unpredictable winds of change whipped about me, ripping the less steadfast from their moorings and casting them about on the open seas.
Maintaining the Temple
The second foundation after faith is works. All of us must work to excel in this life. It sounds simple, but most of the profound things in life are simple. As a precondition for work, one must have energy. It’s a physical law that one cannot express outwardly what one does not possess internally. Work requires energy, and energy requires good health—both mental and physical.
Physical health is governed by the functions of the body. You cannot work if your body is sick or weak. Therefore, it is critical to make choices that will support your body. For the past 20 years or so I have maintained a daily exercise regimen, often rising early in the morning and going to the local YMCA, where I spend at least an hour jogging, biking, weight training, and stretching. I have found that this practice gives me an abundance of energy, brightens my mood, and prepares me for the rigors of the business day.
Many people work out with a result in mind. They exercise in pursuit of a leaner or more muscular body. But I have found that, while maintaining a healthy physique is a welcome result of exercise, the main benefit is the process itself. Daily exercise represents a victory in the struggle against internal laziness and tests our resolve to get up and go when most people would prefer to get another few minutes of sleep. Even more important, exercise steels the body against the onslaught of disease. We have all heard the phrase, “Your body is a temple,” and it is wise to recognize the critical role that our physical health plays in our ability to be a good citizen and servant of God.
The second component of vibrant health is what we take into our body. Studies conducted on people who died of supposedly “natural” causes have revealed that they actually died of food poisoning. It wasn’t that they consumed rotten food, but that their bodies became less able to process the foods that they had consumed over a lifetime of eating. As we age, our bodies become less adept at breaking down food, and those foods end up staying in our system and wreaking havoc on our internal organs. I was raised on a rich farm diet, consisting of meat, starches, and vegetables. Working on the family farm required us to eat enough food to endure the backbreaking labor of planting and harvesting. Today most of us, including myself, lead a sedentary lifestyle, chained to our desks for most of the day. We do not need to consume copious amounts to survive. When we do so, we merely tax our internal organs and create unneeded waste that will come back to haunt us as we age. As a precaution, I have begun eating less as I grow older.
For people involved in brain work, quality of food should be stressed over quantity. In this society we are blessed with a plethora of options for maintaining a healthy diet. We have organic markets, local grocers where farm-fresh produce is sold in abundance, and a readily available supply of whole grains, lean meats, and clean water. Even most restaurants, including my beloved soul-food spot, the Florida Avenue Grill, have healthy menu options that, if consumed in moderation, will support a healthy lifestyle. My regimen generally consists of a hearty breakfast of whole oats, soy milk, and fruit, followed by a sensible lunch that includes fresh vegetables. Most nights I do not eat dinner, but will have a small snack if besieged by hunger.
As the brain replaces the body as the primary tool of production for most American workers, we should be mindful of poisoning it with alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. These substances have an immediate and destructive effect on the brain’s operation and expose it to debilitating conditions such as depression and mental illness. It profits us little if we can lift a thousand pounds but cannot concentrate on the complexities of the modern economy. One cannot arrive at work hungover from a night of partying and expect to be a productive coworker or effective leader. It’s obvious that psychoactive drugs such as marijuana and cocaine have destroyed the inner cities, but what’s more insidious and less talked about is the rampant drug use occurring among the middle class. The effects on mental health, worker productivity, and economic well-being have not been adequately accounted for, but they would be mind-boggling if we could truly see the extent of their consequences.
Instead of damaging our brain with toxic drugs, we should nourish it by reading books that stimulate the spirit and ignite our creativity and imagination. We should keep a written journal, and commit to writing down our thoughts and experiences daily. Not only does this sharpen our basic communication skills, but over time it provides a blueprint of our lives to which we can refer in times of uncertainty or struggle.
In truth, it’s easier to be wealthy than it is to be healthy. The hardest work I have to do every day is the work that I do on myself. What I have found, however, is that when I work on myself, everything around me begins to fall into place. When I become more physically healthy, my outlook becomes healthier, and everything begins to work when I set my hand to it.
A once-famous mantra held that “The clothes don’t make the man.” The truth behind the slogan is that we tend to rely on rich raiment, elegant elocution, or technological wizardry, while the primary engine of our success lies within us. The simple truth is that man is already completed in God’s image. Our souls, bodies, and brains are wonderful gifts endowed by our Creator, and should be nurtured above all else.
Why Rest Is Necessary
Of course, in addition to keeping ourselves physically and spiritually fit, we also need to make time in our lives to take a step back and relax. Some people do this through weekly attendance at church, others through a family dinner every weekend, or with time out with friends on special occasions. There are many different ways to create space in our lives for enjoyment and reflection, but it is important that we recognize the need to do this on a regular basis. Having moments of reflection on the Sabbath, for example, allows us to reconnect to what is truly important. In the same way, making the time for a vacation every year also helps us to recharge, refresh, and reengage with our best selves. Sometimes all it takes is a few days away from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives to realize that those things that were causing us stress are really not so important after all.
In my own life I have found that trips away are often helpful. Sometimes it is as simple as returning to the family farm for a weekend. Other times I’ve taken more extensive trips abroad. The important thing is not that we take “luxurious” trips or fancy vacations, but that we make the time to get away and to really enjoy ourselves.
I used to feel that I needed to take work with me while I was on vacation. I never got much work done, but I always managed to make myself feel guilty about not finishing it. So I got the worst of both worlds—I would partly spoil my vacation and be unproductive at the same time. Now, when I go, I try to turn the cell phone off, get away for a while, and spend time with friends and family, giving them my full attention. I find that I enjoy my vacations more, and that I return to the job more refreshed and better able to work.
Friends are another important ingredient in maintaining our equilibrium. Too many of the folks I know don’t spend enough time with their friends. One good friend can sustain us through sorrow, help us to carry our burdens, encourage us to see our full potential, and allow us to become our best selves. When we are in danger of harming ourselves, they can set us on the straight path again. Our friends, in fact, are sometimes our best guardians.
The Bible says that a friend sticketh closer than a brother. I know in my case that my brothers are my good friends, but I also have friends who have enriched my life in ways that I never would have expected. I have friends who have helped me to better enjoy life and to better see my own potential. A good friend can see our problems from a different angle, casting light on our difficulties in a way that makes them seem less glaring and more manageable.
A healthy spiritual life, good food, exercise, friends—all of these things are essential if we aim to preserve and nurture our best selves. Furthermore, these rules of good living apply to us all.
The Call to Work
Now we have to take things one step further. I’ve written at some length about the necessity of taking time to cherish what we have, and to do the necessary work of taking care of ourselves. We need to remember, however, that if we want to create wealth for ourselves, we need to work for it. That wealth might be material, spiritual, physical, or a wealth of friends and good experiences. But let it be clear: Real wealth is the product of real work.
The parable of the goose that lays the golden egg reminds us that we should never become so greedy that we end up killing the very gifts that have enriched us so. Even those who inherit great wealth need to work if they want to enjoy a wealth of friendships, a meaningful spiritual life, or rewarding life experiences.
Let us always remember that the riches we are able to enjoy are the riches that we work for. We have many challenges before us, and many opportunities to do fulfilling work in the world. God has blessed each of us with the ability to take advantage of these opportunities. But in order to make the most of them—and to help those around us—we need to pause, recognize our gifts for what they are, and set to work to build an even more beautiful world.