The Tale of Easter Island

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

There is a small, remote island in the southeast Pacific Ocean, now a World Heritage Site (thank you, Wikipedia), that in modern times reminds us that achieving balance in life, that magic mid-point between doing too much or too little, has never been an easy task.

This little island, named Easter Island, saw its first human inhabitants, probably voyagers blown off course, make their home within it around A.D. 350. Easter Island was luscious and fertile, oozing with potential for its new inhabitants to exploit.

Flash-forward about a thousand years later. The population of the island had grown to ten to fifteen thousand people. The people’s culture was in many ways advanced: the residents of Easter Island organized and managed the resources of the tiny island amongst themselves and could even permit themselves to build huge monuments to their gods.

Eventually however, the people of Easter Island could no longer thrive, despite their advancements. The island’s once abundant potential had been sapped due to the quick growth of the human population. Birds and small land animals that the people hunted disappeared from the island, forests were sheared, and land was farmed to exhaustion. The civilization of Easter Island crumbled, conflict broke out, and some turned to cannibalism. Life was very bleak and grim for the meager amount of Islanders that remained.

The story of Easter Island is usually told to illustrate the dark future that the human race will face, should we overuse the environment (it was in a chapter of Tom Garrison’s Oceanography dealing with environmental issues that I read of Easter Island). However, the analogy works for life-work balance.

Is there such a thing as too much work? As too much drive to accomplish? Or is there an attainable balance, between working towards goals and just relaxing that yields better results? I, like most other people I know, manage to live a decent life without the answers to these questions. Nonetheless, they linger in my head.

Oftentimes, teens are told to find their passion, because with one, they won’t ever have to work, every thing will come naturally. This is perhaps the one piece of advice out of all the commonly given morsels of wisdom (or in this case, supposed wisdom) that I most disagree with. I love activities like writing and discussing, reading, studying, and cooking; I’d consider them passions. Yet the notion that I always enjoy these activities, whenever and wherever, and that I’m talented enough at these activities to never seek to improve myself is absolutely absurd. No matter how intrinsically enjoyed an activity is, a bit of elbow grease, motivation, and discipline will always be needed to do anything. In a way, the phenomenon reminds me of a fundamental law of physics: objects are continuously seeking to lose energy, not to do work. As individuals, we may have certain personal talents that make our passions easier for us to pursue, but we cannot pursue them without some amount of effort.

The question is, how much effort is necessary? In the ideal situation, we would simultaneously strive for excellence in what we do and invest just the right amount of energy in the rest of our life to maximize our efficiency. Striving for excellence is essentially being perfect. Perfection doesn’t exist, yet don’t we all intrinsically know exactly what it looks like?

Composing a perfect article for this column would entail spending 24/7 each week extensively researching to find the most precise and accurate information, interviewing dozens of people to find the most intriguing viewpoints, planning and writing, reviewing until every sentence flows just right, and spell and grammar checking as if the world depended on it. Unfortunately for you, dear readers, not I nor any other human is capable of writing a perfect article or doing anything else perfectly. Anyone who nearly succeeds at perfection does just that—nearly succeeds at it only to lose everything, like the people of Easter Island. The Islanders took too much from their island and met their end; if we take too much from ourselves, we will have the same fate.

Yet some people are capable of writing very, very good articles, while others can only produce mediocre ones. Talent (if such a thing truly exists) aside, the only difference between writing an outstanding article and writing a so-so one is the great extent to which excellence in writing is pursued and the lesser extent to which excellence in other areas of life (e.g. excellence at cleaning up one’s room) is pursued.

Perhaps the key to reaching our goals is knowing what balance looks like. But someone tell me, what does balance look like? If we start talking about a perfect balance, are we again entering the realm of attaining perfection? However, unlike perfection, everyone’s conception of balance would differ, making balance achievable, but not ideal. The circle continues.

Nothing like the ramblings of an overly pensive teenager to debute the weekend, eh?

Originally published in the Times & Transcript on April 30th, 2011.

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