What are we doing here, that is the question.
And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer.
Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear.
We are waiting for Godot to come —
~Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
We are always trying to get somewhere, to accomplish something. Sometimes our actions are “positive”, proactive—reaching forward to get to there (rather than here). Sometimes our actions appear “negative”—attempting to avoid this or that. We are always attempting something, but what? Right now, this moment, What are you doing?
Several seekingGood posts in recent months have focused on identity in general and self-recognition in specific. One sure way to plumb the depths of who we are, to peel back the layers of pretense smothering our awareness of our genuine intent is to attempt to understand the motivations driving the myriad of activities in which we engage from moment to moment. In this regard, what are you doing?
Waiting as a Lifestyle
Most of us answer the title question in the same (usually superficial) manner in which we routinely think about “reality”. We might say, “I am waiting for the bus”. “I am drinking my morning coffee (and trying to wake up).” “I am trying to get this work done (so leave me alone)”. “I am waiting…” “I’m buying…” “I’m watching…”, “I am hoping and praying…”. None of these actually answers the deeper question what are you doing?
If you say you are ‘waiting for a bus’, is that really all you are doing? Is that really your true intent? Alright, then to summarize, you awaken, ready to start a new day. You shower, dress, grab some breakfast, then head off to that momentous task you have so longed for—Waiting for the Bus. Really? Surely that is not your true intent. What are you really trying to do?
For most of us, when pressed, we are willing to step a bit closer to a more accurate description of our true intent. Perhaps we will admit “bus waiting” is not a part of our life dream. Perhaps we might offer the more accurate assessment “trying to get to work”. Okay. So what are you doing? Why are you doing that? Those truly fortunate among us might suggest that these interim activities represent mere stepping stones to their lifelong desire to <fill in the blank> (perhaps literally). Their current employment, for instance, might afford them the opportunity to accomplish their true desires. Good answer. This still does not touch the most profound intent, but it is certainly better than most of us can (or will) offer. So what are you doing right now?
Let’s back out and come in another door. If you could do anything—anything at all right now—what would you do? Why would you do that? Why of all the things you could have selected do you choose to do that? Is that your final answer? So why would you do that? Why would you make such a choice? Having done it, do you think you would experience a different life because of this new action? Will the life of any person, including yourself, improve as a result of that particular action or situation? Perhaps improvement is not your thing. If not, what then? What do you seek? What are you doing?
Very often, many of us are not attempting to skirt our true motivations nor our awareness of them. Often, we get caught up in the details of the process of reaching such that the reaching itself becomes the activity. This does not need to be a bad thing. Any action repeated over and over again can both establish and reinforce overarching paradigms which guide future actions. Habits can transform us. When the “reaching for” becomes the focal point of our actions, it will tend to serve this “modelling” function, guiding our subsequent behaviors. What we choose to do, we tend to continue doing. Again, that is not a bad thing. The overarching paradigm that characterizes our actions represents a general narrative form—not just a story we tell ourselves but a normalized manner in which we tell stories (conveying what we think is “real”) in general. As we participate in habitual life paradigms (configurations of choices), over time, these can begin to communicate to ourselves notions about who we think we are and the world around us. These reiterated messages can present not only detrimental barriers to achieving our true goals but, in fact, can represent antithetical impediments to what we say we would like to achieve. Consider a few true life events of one of our longtime associates (and once a friend whom we will simply call Tom).
Holding on to anger
is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of
throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.
Tom, born to a rural, working class couple from southern Ohio was once full of hope. Like most kids, he was excited by the prospect of someday being “somebody”. But notoriety during his formative years was an uphill battle for Tom. He was one of those “other” kids one only remembers from a yearbook photo. He played clarinet (not well) and loved to draw and paint (that, too, was unremarkable). But he was a decent kid—ignored by his older sibling but especially kind to his little sister. As a teenager, despite the socially conservative environment of his upbringing, he even began to profess egalitarian ideals (when holding such beliefs cost him nothing and before disappointment and bitterness had taken its toll).
What was Tom doing as an aspiring young man, when he hoped to become a famous designer? What was he doing when he finally managed to get the much desired drum majorette to go out with him? What was Tom doing when he purposely drunk too much then he wrecked his father’s car, when all he could think about was the quiet snickering (almost behind his back) of the class president and a group of cheerleaders—evidence, so he thought, of an inside joke he was never invited to share.
What was Tom doing when he applied to and was accepted by a prestigious university? And what was he doing in his enthusiastic participation in the various debaucheries his fraternity provided and encouraged? What was he doing when he took a year to study abroad, met, married then later divorced his trophy wife? What was he doing when he spent hundreds of hours doing charity work with inner city children? What was he doing with the various women with “which” he engaged as mere accouterments of his desire? And what was he doing when, speaking with a certain audience, he unconsciously referenced “people” and “Black people” as separate categories, or his “friends” and his “Black friends” as different aspects of his experience?
Tom eventually settled into a cushy white collar job providing both a “professional” status and a salary far above anything his roots would have predicted. Aspiring toward an identity once classified as nouveau riche, Tom sought and immersed himself in a full blown presumption of privilege with the respect he assumed would follow. Tom became so “successful” that he went into business for himself. But all that changed.
More than a decade has passed since the world suffered significant economic difficulties at the hands of large financial institutions. Tom’s retirement funds were decimated; his hard-earned pension—his protection from a society that places little value on advanced age—melted way. The economy slowed. Tom had to relinquish his business along with a large chunk of his pride, returning to an industrial (or what he called “pedestrian”) architectural firm. Downsizing dissolved even this job. His once complacent sense of entitlement was shaken to the core. “Someone needs to pay for this—for treating me this way!” His security burgled by those of whom he once hoped to be aligned, Tom cannot bear the thought that people most “like himself” were the barbarians at the gate who stole his security and, even if misplaced, his sense of self-worth.
Tom now grasps for a different culprit. What is he doing when he expresses resentment about the strong female presence in the latest Star Wars movies or when he expresses his belief that the more recent killings of young black men at the hands of law enforcement “must have been justified”? What is he doing when he argues “that border wall needs to be built”? What is he doing—a devotee of a famous, self-declared “libertarian” blogger—when he spouts notions gleaned from the objectivist writings of Ayn Rand. What is he doing when he slings the term “socialism” (presuming he actually understands the term) at would-be ideological opponents as if the word represents the mark of the Beast? What is Tom doing but waiting to feel better about himself? What is he doing but looking past his own genuine decency while attempting to avoid the crushing knowledge that he has become a quite ordinary, old, embittered blue-collar white guy from the Midwest? What is he doing? One might think he is waiting for Godot. Does he really believe the renewed albeit artificial view of himself codified in the MAGA acronym on his red cap can actually restore his longing for white male presumption and privilege or that any wall anywhere is ever going to restore and protect his sense of self-worth? Does Tom really believe that bus will ever arrive?
“Not Long Now!”
Some folks live their entire lives as if “waiting for a bus”. A brief glance down the street, then they patiently settle into that oh-so-cozy waiting area. Time to enjoy a bit of amicably delivered “news” (entertainment) from their chosen media source. Only a few moments later, they stand, impatient now, kicking at the ground, looking at their phones (to get the time). “Not long now!” they wishfully intone, attempting to reassure themselves. “It’s late, but we can always count on that Godot Bus Line for eventual service”.
At a “real” bus stop, we can always find commiseration nearby. But in other areas of life, most of us do not want to be seen waiting for such a vehicle—one which is consistently late (unreliable) or is likely not to appear at all. Most of the time our waiting looks more like scurrying, tidying, primping for that hot date, chattering in anticipation of our favorite media serial or the Super Bowl. Sometimes we are content to express our disgust about the latest public spectacle concocted by our chosen villain of the day. Or maybe we just have to—you know, just have to…do stuff…you know—STUFF!. “Getting it done—yep, almost there!” Almost where? What are you doing?
All this waiting turns us into beggars—meager stand-ins for the audacity of our childhood innocence. We wait pleading for alms, hoping someone will come along to fill the empty cups we have become. Giving tragic meaning to the notion “lifting ourselves by our own boot straps”, the most many of us can manage is to offer ourselves to an institution, to a job or the newest artifact of technology, or to a cause, imploringly lifting ourselves up in self-sacrifice toward those “above” us, those we depend on to tell us who we are and what we are worth. Such was Tom’s life tactic, his normative narrative (and continues to be so). Any wonder that so many have succumb to the spectacle that is modern media, celebrity hype and image-forging identity politics that so convincingly lead so many astray from themselves and their true purpose. It seems, in transcendence of Marx’s notions about religion representing the opiate of the masses, in this age of post-Nietzschean-god-death, we cleave to any scrape of meaning onto which we can latch our badly hemorrhaging hope. Yet in so doing, are we really doing anything more than waiting…for Godot?
What Are You Doing?
What are you doing? Only you know the answer to this. No one can offer you any reply that will ever satisfy your life purpose—regardless how good it might feel to wallow in such vicarious delusions. No ideology, political stance, moral conviction nor religious dogma (nor any dogma of any kind) is going to supply the answer that will satisfy your true intent—regardless how much you wish it could. And so, again and again, we venture forth to gallantly wait for that bus, that train, that promotion, becoming rich, an exciting love life, or perfect political candidate. If our self-declared promise of arrival is fulfilled, we eventually attempt to do it again, waiting for yet another bus to make the return journey, to adventure all the way back to where we started. Where were we going that was so important? Why? What are we doing?
You realize, of course, that this ping-pong bus thing many of us habitually enact is not even an option for some folks. In ever increasing numbers, too many of us have given up, turning instead to indulgence expressed through the craving of creature comforts, to fear, or the raw escape of tribalism that provides cover for repressed anger expressed as raw aggression toward any persons considered “other”. Perhaps more tragically others have given up entirely, accepting a life of wishful thinking, reveries of seemingly unachievable, truly Godot-like dreams or even the numbness achievable only through opioids and other such disappearing acts. What are we doing?
The Holy Grail
We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
~T.S. Eliot, “The Little Giddings”
Consider a different life narrative, a different story we could tell ourselves. Consider the possibility that everything we do is intended to achieve value, to participate in and experience—first hand— true value. While there are many ways we might frame our driving passions and feverish attempts at becoming worthy of the life in us, consider for a moment that the life narrative to which we most aspire is to achieve the ultimate experience of our own worthiness to be alive. In the artistic world, we might refer to this exulted state as “the Sublime”. In formal religious terms, we might use words like ‘nirvana’, ‘heaven’, even ‘Valhalla’. Unfortunately, in popular culture, the best we can manage are terms like ‘fame’, ‘sexiness’, ‘wealth’, ‘control’ or ‘power’. For some, a truly exulted state of worthiness contorted within the sociopolitical arena can only look like ‘I’m right!’. Some are even willing to settle for one of the most baseless, lowest uncommon denominators of presumed worth—“white”. What is your holy grail? What are you doing to achieve it?
At a certain point in his life, Tom, like many of us, began to con himself into believing the classic phrase “it doesn’t get any better than this!” “This” represents the counterfeit stand-in for true value and life purpose that swaddles him even now, the consolation prize Tom relishes with abandon.
In the March 23, 2018 post, this blog described three major ways we tend to frame our attempts to achieve value. These motivations—pleasure, power and meaning—represent avenues through which we attempt to “will” our ultimate desires into being. In general, many such efforts tend to boil down to shirking responsibility for ourselves by losing ourselves in some limited “good” that applies to a very small segment of the world population. Sometimes that small segment is focused only on references like “my”, “mine” and colloquial demands like “gimme!”
Many of our lives are driven by a craving for pleasure. Usually, this pleasure finds expression in creature comforts (food, drink, sex and excitement) and the wherewithal (often money and sex appeal) to achieve such goals. Sometimes, the quest for “pleasure” even includes a desire to instill and maintain displeasure in others. In any form, most day to day choices—what the seeker is “doing”—is funneled toward achieving these pleasure-prescribed ends.
Some of us, perhaps in increasing numbers, have turned to attempting to exert a measure of sociopolitical, economic and/or moral control in the world. In some cases, this “circling of the wagons” is expressed overtly (sometimes in some rather ugly, violent and certainly divisive ways). At other times, such desires are expressed only vicariously through identification with specific individuals, institutions or even sociopolitical slogans (such as the MAGA acronym or admonitions like “RESIST!”). In either instance, this “will to power” represents attempts to do something specific in the world. That particular type of “something” is always an attempt to elevate an in-group to a status on par with or (usually) above the presumed status of other groups.
We might characterize a third type of motivation driving “what we are doing” as a will to meaning—an attempt to forego personal dissolution into pleasure or dominance over others. This third approach tends to seek a more transcendent goal. While, in principle, such efforts could help to alleviate a great number of the world’s driving problems, too often what (at least from the inside) appears to resemble attempts to achieve transcendent goals often results in little more than aspiration for nirvana for a specific group over-against or in spite others. In general, approaching life from a meaningful focus rather than a preoccupation with pleasure or dominance certainly might apply more socially stabilizing features to everyday experience. We need a means of determining the measure of ‘good” of our intentions—of what we are attempting to do.
One method of measuring the appropriateness of such proposals might be to consider the degree to which our decisions, proposals and general approach to problem solving either includes or excludes others. Just how inclusive is this great idea you have? To what degree does it benefit the lives of others as well as ourselves? (If this idea sounds a bit like the Golden Rule, consider that a Good thing!). Most of us not lost in the myopia of hedonism or megalomania assume that if our proposal is “good”, even if some folks must sacrifice to achieve it, our intentions are worthy. We should proceed. Such a perspective is reasonable if short-sighted. Sacrifices sometimes must be made. The true measure of the appropriate intentionality is whether we, the proposers are willing to be those who are sacrificed. If not, our so-called meaningful aspirations represent little more than veiled attempts to control the lives of other people for our own benefit.
To Believe or Not to Believe
Our lives are driven by belief. Do you believe this statement to be true? If not, why not? If it is true, how do you know? Our lives are driven by belief—not by pleasure and certainly not by power. We might choose to believe in this or espouse a belief in that. But to be sure, we believe, one way or another. It is what we do; it is the way we live; it is who we are. We can choose to believe in pleasure as a driving force in life. We can choose to orient our lives toward controlling the lives of others. But the presence of belief remains. Similarly, belief represents the seed of meaning.
All belief is built on stories. Whether the story is handed down through a religious text, through a governmental document, through cultural mores or merely through the repeated choices and communicated assumptions of parents and peers, we fashion our notions of reality—past, present and future—around the stories we believe in. We somehow manage to ignore the circular justification of belief that support stories and stories that support beliefs, all in the name of attempting to control our version of what we call “real”.
One of the most fundamental facts we all need to face is this: we choose our life stories. We choose the stories on which we build our beliefs. To be sure, the circumstances into which we are born and the sociocultural, racial, gender and economic specifics of our life experience create sets of apparent limits which, if we are to be free, we must overcome. The stories we choose represent the building blocks of our apparent boundaries. We believe these stories. Just so, we believe in the limits imposed by such stories. Furthermore, we usually insist that others respect the limits we have imposed on our version of reality—the limits for ourselves as well as the limits we demand for others. As long as we all read from the same script, as long we cooperate in the same drama, we can maintain this stilted definition of who we are. However, unlike the avoidance tactic of the pleasure principle and the misdirection of a power dynamic, transcendent meaning and the empowering beliefs embedded within can become the vehicles by which we overcome life circumstance. Unfortunately, for most of us, we habitually settle into prescribed patterns of belief, most often as dissatisfied (if not deluded) authors of these self-inflicted stories. Furthermore, as an ironic death knell for hope, we tend to wait for something or someone to come along to liberate us from ourselves.
When we actually stop and think about it, this whole situation in which we find ourselves can seem so incredibly complicated. Beliefs, stories, self-recognition, identity politics, motivations, oppression and the wide range of sociopolitical difficulties we face daily can seem overwhelming. We can easily get lost in the apparent complexities of EveryDayLife. It is so much easier to lose ourselves in something much simpler—like a simple slogan chanted by the like-minded (and which becomes an irritation to others). It is so much easier to lose ourselves in delusions of superiority—whether as our superior “humanity” (desire or even propensity to care for others), the quantity of stuff in our pockets or just some arbitrarily chosen biological characteristics. It is so much easier to lose ourselves in a cause or ideology, in a craving for the protection from fear buried in hatred of “Them” or in a desperate need to proselytize (too often a version of commiseration at the bus stop). As stated at the beginning of this article, too often most of us are more than willing to float along the surface of daily experience, to pretend we are doing this or that rather than challenge ourselves to live up to our true ideals, and in that, our true potential. The critical ingredient, of course, is responsibility—the courage to responsibly channel our moment to moment actions, choices and thoughts toward achievement of our most profound soulful intentions. Through our actions, we need to assume full responsibility for the sense of meaning that resonates with our most basic sense of “Good”. This responsibility of self-recognition does not require coming up with the “right” answer but rather, to confront the fact that whatever answer we propose belongs to us—to own our responses and the genuine motivations behind them. In that, we fully become ourselves.
Our Good always resides not in well-worn narratives donned later in life but exudes from essential meanings full of possibilities—those we instinctively understood as children and especially those many of us exhibit as parents. We need not beat the bushed for theories, agendas, political platforms nor ideologies to find such meanings. Such transcendent significance, such profound value remains where it has always been—within each of us. We need reach no further than our understanding of ourselves. We are valuable. In most if not all of what we do, we are attempting to establish belief in our own value, belief that we are worthy of ourselves. When we become the Holy Grail we seek, accepting full responsibility for what we do each moment, all waiting ceases to exist. We no longer wait for Godot nor anyone (nor anything) else to save us. There is no begging for alms, pleading for our cups to be filled. Through full personal expression, we exhibit the fullness we are becoming—so full in fact that we relish the opportunity to share with others. (True compassion can vanquish resentment and fear). Instead of framing our Sisyphean trek as “futile”, we could, instead, choose to conceive of the same recursive life experience as heroic persistence punctuated by growth at every turn. Each step brings us closer to who we are becoming, closer to who we are. We each possess an inherent value that need not seek validation but merely requires expression. Just so, what are you doing?
A Condition of Complete Simplicity
All the above is just a story—just a way of considering ourselves, taking a psychological selfie, an attempt to catch a glimpse of ourselves, an opportunity for self-recognition. Although “just” a story, like all worthy stories and indeed, like life itself, perhaps the real meaning lies not in the “truth” of the words nor the sequence of events but in the significance we glean from the experience of participating in (or even just pondering) its possibilities. So consider this. Habits—repeated actions and choices—can both enslave and reorient; they can both ensnare and rejuvenate. In the seekingGood March 2018 post, we presented an “Inside/Outside Exercise”—that each day we should do one thing to improve ourselves and one thing to improve the world. What if every day, in fact, several times throughout each day, you took the Inside exercise seriously? What if every day you earnestly asked yourself the recurring question What am I doing? How do you think your life might change?
Perhaps the question itself can serve a remedial function. What are you doing? Like repeating the same word over and over again, we might begin to tweak our usual somnambulant sensibilities about everyday experience just enough to trigger the construction of a few different answers. What are you doing? What do you truly want? What are you doing, moment to moment, to achieve it? Possible answers need not be “correct”. They just need to be different enough to generate new, different questions about behaviors, choices, attitudes or the ways we handle frustration, anger and most of all fear. The situation in which we find ourselves is not complicated. Life can be no more complicated than our willingness to transform ourselves. Perhaps we might begin to see EveryDayLife in the terms of the words of T.S. Eliot, as “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)”.