A reflection about the importance of good foundations, both spiritually and practically.
The short passage from Matthew’s Gospel below is set at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus addresses the gathered crowds. It is full of teachings, parables and admonitions explaining to the people what it means to lead a godly life. So please forgive me if I take it slightly out of context, and try to apply it probably more generally than it was meant originally.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
It is the story of two builders, familiar to many. A wise builder, who builds his house on a rock, who looks for solid foundations. And a foolish builder, who builds his house on sand. We don’t really hear what reasons the second man has to build his house on sand. It may be sheer laziness, or maybe he preferred the beach over the rocks. Or possibly he listened to someone who didn’t have much clue how and where to build a house. In any case, the house didn’t last.
It is true for more or less whatever we do: if our foundations aren’t solid, our project is destined to fail. However, ‘solid’ doesn’t mean the same in every situation. First of all, it will depend on the size or significance of your project, as well as your starting point. For example, the Shard’s foundations consist of over 100 concrete piles going down 53 meters, to sustain a building that is virtually built on clay. Compare this, for example, with the meagre depth of the piles (16 meters) that hold up the Empire State Building.
So too for us: the more important it is what we are doing, the more time we will want to invest to do it well. Compare for example your effort for mock exams and real exams: I am sure that you will feel that the upcoming exams need even more work than the ones you already have done.
It works both ways, however: just as not every building needs piles that go 50 meters deep, so not every task needs hours and hours of work. The work that goes into a PhD is more than a piece of work that is set as coursework for an undergraduate course. It is not that we should not give it our full attention, but we also need to realise when ‘good’ is ‘good enough’.
However, the significance of something is not the only thing that counts. It is the hard reality that some people need to work harder, or maybe more correctly, have to spend more time on a particular subject, to get to the same results. So, it doesn’t always help to compare yourself to others around you. Yes, probably if you’re consistently procrastinating when others are working, you’re doing something wrong. But, on the other hand, it is important to set your own goals and your own way to get there, particularly when we come to the final stages of revision for many of you. Think how you’re going to revise, don’t just copy someone else’s timetable.
Lastly, and related to the above, prioritise. None of us can do everything, let alone do everything well. Back to the figure of speech: it is much better to build one building well, than three that fall over at the first wind and rain. And again, this will be something you each need to think about individually. Yes, of course, talk about it with your peers, your tutors and teachers, but don’t just copy what the person sitting next to you is doing, no matter how successful it may seem.
Building foundations can be boring at times. Weeks of work and still no building that rises. But it is the only way to make sure that whatever you build, whatever you do will stand. Without it, you’re going to get nowhere. And finally, whilst doing all this, don’t forget to make the most of the here and now. You cannot build a house, nor succeed in an exam, or any project for that matter, if you don’t look after yourself. Be focussed, but don’t forget to live. Make sure that you continue to make some time for the things you really enjoy: don’t just work blindly, but work sensibly. And you will see that whatever you will do, will be better for the preparation you’ve put in.