On Yak Shaving & A Well Lived Life

Shaving the Yak

Last week, I told my team, "I spent most of the day yak shaving." "Yak Shaving" is a term that is somewhat commonplace among the computer programming crowd, but one that I have never heard anyone use in any other context. Like any great idiomatic expression, "yak shaving" is meant as a shorthand to express a much more complicated idea or state of affairs.

What is yak shaving?

Yak shaving is meant to connote the state you find yourself in when you are more than 5 or 6 levels deep in an important task, but are currently doing something that would seem completely unrelated to the original task.

Here's an example: "I want to mow my lawn. But my lawnmower is out of gas. I'll need to go buy some gas. But I don't have a gas can because I lent it to my neighbor. But my neighbor is on vacation and he has a code on his garage door where my gas can is. I could call him but I don't know his cell number. But his dad owns a yak farm down the street and I bet he has the number." But when you get to the yak farmer, he tells you that he left his phone at the house, and he has to finish harvesting the wool off of a couple more yaks before he can get it for you. That is how, on some Saturday morning, when you are asked why you are standing in the middle of a field, shaving a yak, you can truthfully answer, "because I need to mow my lawn."

Nothing Superfluous

I think in our lives we are easily tempted to separate the "big important things" from the things we do every day. We focus most of our attention on those things that may help us receive a promotion, or get us into a good school, or get us noticed by the right people. Even in our deepest relationships, we tend to focus on the "big things" like an anniversary, or a Valentine's day dinner, or a big family vacation. These are what we deem the "important things." They must be. They are the things we post about on Facebook and Twitter.

Now, don't misunderstand me. These are important things. But what we tend to miss is that the universe of "important things" is far more expansive than those which receive plaudits on our social media timelines.

Many times in our life--daily even--we consider the end goal and discount the importance of the means. While understandable, I would argue this is a flawed way for us to view our lives. There is a fundamental principle that says, "He that wills the end, wills the means." But then, if the end is important, then so are the means. The "important" task in our example above is mowing the lawn. And yet, in order to fulfill this goal, a few yaks had to be shaved. The end could not be achieved without it.

In a very real sense, we might say that the dignity of the means is elevated by the dignity of the end.

The implication of this, of course, ought to be life-changing. St. Therese of Lisieux is credited with most fully exploring this idea. Her "little way" is why she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. She grasped the truth that if our end is to know, love, and serve God, and our lives the means to accomplish that end, then the dignity of any act we perform, when performed for the sake of The End, is elevated in dignity.

Then, nothing we do is unimportant. Everything is vital. The kind word said to the cashier at the store. A smile for those who may dislike us. Scrubbing a dish. Shaving the yak.

Caryll Houselander writes, "Sometimes it may seem to us that there is no purpose in our lives, that going day after day for years to this office or that school or factory is nothing else but waste and weariness. But it may be that God has sent us there because but for us, Christ would not be there. If our being there means that Christ is there, that alone makes it worthwhile."

Everything is vital when we will it to be the means to our ultimate End.

Painting Our Own Portrait

Our lives are made of thousands of tiny acts that we perform, day in, and day out. Perhaps if we were to consider these acts in isolation, we would not consider their importance, but these acts are like the brush strokes that make up the final portrait of our lives. If you were to ask a painter if he remembered each and every brush stroke, of course he would tell you that he does not. But, were you to ask him which brush strokes are important, he would tell you, "all of them." Each stroke is the means to the end. No stroke is unimportant for the beauty of the painting. They are the means by which the beauty is realized. No act in our lives is unimportant for the beauty of a life well-lived.

St. John Henry Newman notes: "God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.

He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.

Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about."

When we next find ourselves "shaving a yak" and are tempted to think we are doing something unimportant, stop for just a second, remember your End, and say to Him: "In this I may serve You. For still, You know what You are about."