The writer Richard Bach once noted that, “The best way to avoid responsibility is to say, ‘I’ve got responsibilities.” With the very best of intentions, many of us have tried to be very good little egos. We have listened carefully, and we have heard what defines a responsible, respectable, well-liked human being. And for the most part, it involves getting our work done.
Even as cave-people, the drive to eat also motivated forms of work. We needed to hunt and to collect firewood, so it’s not like fulfilling needs is antithetical to living a deep spiritually enlightened life. (‘Chop wood and carry water,’ say the Zen practitioners.) There is often something to do. There just isn’t always something to do.
We need some time to be. The crises everyone is feeling today in society isn’t so much gloom and doom –it’s that we’ve simply become detached from one another because we spend too much time doing things and we invest too little time in simply being together.
Not long ago a very rich day could be created doing nothing other than sitting with a friend, listening to a full album of music. No one was talking or doing anything. Listening was the activity. We were together, taking life in, rather than have our egos push it outward.
Today, if we told people we were going to listen to an entire album for two hours, the first thing they would ask is what we were going to do while we were listening to it.
We need more time to just be together, where that act itself could spawn a new kind of action or creativity about life. But smartphones make this even harder because they are designed to appeal directly to our distracted ego-nature.
Even if we do get chances to immerse ourselves with fellow humans, many will often ignore that opportunity to stare downward, and ‘like’ and ‘swipe’ our way through an article on why we’re so lonely.
The very basis of social media is that we have these healthy instincts to prove our worth to our fellow tribe members. Today, that includes having the right partner, which is why being single is seen as a tragedy rather than just a state of being within a larger tribe.
In today’s manifestations of our drive to be impressive and useful to our fellow tribe members, our egos have us trying to out-do our own friends with better photos, tastier food, sexier bodies and a more enviable life. It’s one thing to want to be valuable to a tribe we value, and it’s another thing to try to have status in that same tribe. Status is not necessarily value.
In an ego-created, thought-based world, we each learn to see that being ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ and ‘well-liked’ are so important to our inclusion in the tribe, that we will strangely mistreat other members of the tribe to achieve those things. We will also mistreat ourselves. We start to lose awareness, compassion and love, and we replace it with respectability, responsibility, and commitment.
A parent will not only work late and miss their child’s first time on stage playing the piano. But they’ll even do that to get a file ready that, if they thought about it, they’d know or realize that file was going to sit on their bosses desk and not get looked at for two weeks.
In the boss’s mind the work was more important than the kid’s recital, but the tortured feeling the parent is experiencing is an example of how our society has been constructed in such a way that it actually demands that we behave inhumanely. People now have paid jobs where their value is created by making other people’s lives busier and less enjoyable.
It’s not that the worker isn’t correct about the fact that they do need to get their work done because it is, in a way, a proxy for the work required to obtain food and shelter. But when the worker is taking twice as long to do the work because the worker is constantly arguing with themselves over where they really should be, and what the value of each thing is, then we can feel what we are doing ‘isn’t right’ in a completely different way than ‘right’ being defined as ‘doing what we’re told.’
The to-do lists never end. Life doesn’t start after we’ve got all of our work done. It doesn’t start after our degree, or after we get this job, or after we get married, or have a baby, or retire. Life is happening now. But many never become aware of this until life is drawing to a close, and then they start to recognize the difference between doing and being.
Doing is important. But it cannot replace being. It is worthwhile for each of us to look through our lives in an effort to see it in these terms. There are times where the price for something is simply too high. But we will unconsciously keep paying it unless we raise our awareness and begin to make our lives more about us being healthy, and less about just getting things done for their own sake.