Today I thought I’d post an exchange I had with someone recently, thinking that it might be of general interest. My correspondent told me that had she realized she’s been caught in a story that says there is “not enough time”, and another that says there is “too much to do”. She woke up to that fact, she said, when she stopped rushing here and there and noticed the simple beauty of a thousand tiny yellow leaves on her patio (shown in the photo above—don’t miss the pink toe-nails). Here’s my response:
D: Those has to be two of the most believable and most pervasive stories of all time, at least in our culture. There never is enough time (supposedly) to get everything done—and it’s critical that we get everything done! The amount of stress and worry this causes people on a daily basis is incalculable.
So what is this "getting stuff done" thing, anyway? Clearly there are things we need to do to take care of ourselves, but how much of what seems essential actually is? It's crazy to think that the more "advanced" we humans have become through the millenia the more work we're required to do. Supposedly hunters and gatherers worked something like 25 hours a week on average. We have tons of stuff they didn't have--but do we really need it? We assume we need what we have because we're used to it, and we accept that we have to effort all the time so that we can have and maintain the stuff, but do we really? The counter-argument usually says something like, “Yeah, they didn’t have to work as hard, but they also had brutal, awful lives and died early”. The things I’ve read about the condition of “primitive” peoples only supports that view to a point. They did have a much higher rate of infant mortality, to be sure, and they did not have the medical technology that allows us (in the first world) to expect with a reasonable degree of optimism that we’ll live into our seventies or beyond, but otherwise the evidence suggests that they had much less disease (much of our modern diseases were introduced into the human population through the animals we domesticated), that they were stronger and healthier, that they ate a much healthier and (interestingly) much more varied diet, and that they enjoyed social structures that were simpler, more equal, and without much of the prejudice and violence that we suffer from now. Considering what the anthropologists say, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re working our butts off for lives inferior to those enjoyed by our long-ago ancestors, who lounged and socialized much of the day away—and that’s in the privileged first world. To live in modern times in the third world is, I suspect, as bad or worse than it has ever been for human beings.
The other thing about stuff is that the more you have the more you need to have, and the more you need to work to have it. It seems like it should be the opposite, that the more you have the less you need and the less you need to work, but that’s not the way it is. My favorite example is the American lawn. I’m speaking as someone who made his living for a couple years cutting grass, so I know what I’m talking about (and I’m also more than a little prejudiced). There is no good reason to have a lawn, in my opinion. Yes, it looks nice when it’s green and freshly cut, but a well-done natural landscape made with native plants is just as delightful, or more-so. Here are just some of the things you need in order to have a lawn: hoses and sprinklers or an automated sprinkler system, a supply of precious water, poisonous chemicals to make the grass grow, a lawnmower to cut it, and a weedeater. In order to have those things you will also need gasoline and motor oil, string for the trimmer, a mechanic to fix the machines when they break, and possibly someone to do all the work for you. In order to have the things you need to care for the things you need to make the grass grow…. It just goes on and on like this, and all to have something we don’t really need.
What's the point of all this doing and having, anyway? Isn't it to feel good and be happy? Most of what we believe we need doesn't actually contribute to feeling good and being happy. Our stuff mostly contributes, ironically, to feeling deprived and dependent. This is because we become enslaved to this same stuff, and we end up serving it instead of the other way around. We become addicted to having and to the things we have, and devoted to the doing that allows us to have them, especially as, in our culture, having “too much to do” and “not enough time” makes you, in most people’s eyes, a good person.
Of course there's always a trade-off, and a person needs to decide where they want to draw the line. For example, I love the little camper I live in currently (with my friend and sweetheart Anna). Do I need it? No. I could get by without it easily. I’ve slept outside hundreds of times in the past without anything like this. And yet, it's really nice to have it. We can be inside cooking yummy food and being warm while it's blowing and raining like crazy outside. It takes work and money to have the camper, however. Just today I spent a couple hours making a rack for a solar panel I bought to replace the other panel I bought three months ago, which blew over one day and shattered (the point of the rack is to keep that from happening again). Right now the camper is worth the work and money, but I'm aware I must not assume that I NEED it. I don't. If I assume I need it then I become dependent, and I lose the ability to choose what I will or will not do.
We must never forget the one essential fact of our existence on this earth, which is that we are all going to die, and after we die nothing we did will have any importance. On an even larger level, it’s good to remember that some day the human species itself will become extinct, and everything humanity at large has done will be forgotten. Contrasted to this stark fact, how could anything be worth the expense of worry or upset? It's amazing how easy it is to forget this, but we do. To do is necessary, but it’s not the end of our existence. We are here, I think, to be. When it’s time to do, it’s best to do with all of our hearts, but we mustn’t lose sight of the prize, which is to be, and to live in awareness of the subtle miracles occurring everywhere, like those little yellow leaves all over your patio.