Friday, June 15, 2007

The Hare's Dilemma

It is now more than twenty years since I gave up working in a full-time, nine-to-five job and twelve years since I left the workforce altogether. Yet all those years in the workplace – not to mention the twelve years of school, the five years of college and all those years of round-the-clock parenting – have programmed me in ways that make it really difficult for me to replace 'doing' with simply 'being'.

I have noticed that a busy day with many tasks accomplished leaves me highly satisfied whereas I tend to feel vaguely disappointed if I get to the end of a day and cannot point to anything significant that I have done since I got out of bed. (Who is assigning significance? Me of course!)

Sometimes I think I am getting the hang of this 'being' thing. Then a deadline approaches. Like, for example, the departure date for a journey. Soon, I find myself compiling the inevitable 'things-I-must-do-before-we-leave' list. Redirect the mail. Weed the garden. Buy a new suitcase. Get my e-mail up to date. Clean my shoes. Re-charge the camera batteries …

It's not the list that is the problem. Nor even the utter glee with which I cross things off it. The problem is the feeling of vague dissatisfaction I get when a day goes by with nothing crossed off and nothing to show for having lived another twenty-four hours.

As long as I can remember, I have had days of pottering interspersed with days of prodigious output. I am like the hare in the hare and tortoise story who alternated between napping and sprinting. I can totally relate to the hare.

But of course he lost the race. The plodding tortoise is the hero of the story. Our industrial culture rewards the person who works at a steady pace, just like a machine, and has a full 'out' basket at the end of each day. That is what many of us learn to expect of ourselves, regardless of how well that pattern actually suits who we are.

Such an expectation, fully internalised by the time we reach adulthood and reinforced in the workplace, makes it difficult ever to recapture the pure, joyful present-centredness of early childhood. Instead, we become addicted to Getting Things Done and for many of us the addiction persists into the years of so-called 'retirement'. (Even into really old age. I have a 91-year-old relative who frequently chides herself for being 'lazy' and 'not doing anything').

Not that retirement means we should forego the pleasure of doing what we enjoy or of doing a whole lot of things we never had time for before. Being busy is fine. But we should never feel driven. Never, ever, ever.

I often write about the importance – and the pleasure – of living in the Now and substituting 'being' for 'doing'. But do I practise what I preach?

Well yes I do, sometimes. On my daily walks in the countryside, or on vacation, or just strolling around my garden simply observing and breathing instead of weeding or planting, I am often able to do what Richard Carlson calls 'slowing down to the speed of life'. It feels really good.

But the rest of the time? Hmm … not so much.

And by the way, have you noticed that even this post is couched in terms of achievement? I am trying to achieve a state of not being preoccupied with achievement. Arrgghh!! That's enough to drive even a Zen master to drink.


Tess said...

Think of it like meditation: you allow all those extraneous thoughts to come and go, you don't try to achieve a meditative state, you make space for it.

Except that sometimes I for one do try to achieve it! So I sympathise.

John A said...

Just popped over from Time Goes By to thank you for the humorous list you were credited for there, but stayed for the elegant posts like this one.

To alternate between napping and sprinting seems to be the way of much of life. Even the tortoises I've observed seem to do the same, just more deliberately than some.

I love that some of us are getting an opportunity to at least try to return to the "joyful present-centredness of early childhood" that you recalled.

AlwaysQuestion said...

I also came over from Time Goes By. Thank you for sharing.

Cowtown Pattie said...

From TGB as well, but I need to make your place a frequent stop.

Your list at Ronni's was too delicious! I can smile most of the day today!

And, I am uncontrollably jealous of your lifestyle - something that will probably not be in my cards for a very long time - due to poor retirement planning on my part.

Chancy said...

I came by from Ronni Bennett's TGB. Thanks for the funny list.

joared said...

I, too, enjoyed your funny list at TGB. Have been enjoying your posts here for a while. Your "dilemma" is an interesting one as I continue working part time. You might want to think about the criteria you use to actually define what constitutes "achieving" or "accomplishing something."

Rhea said...

That achievement thing is so familiar to me. I am always looking for bigger and better. I am 49, but I bet it won't end anytime soon!

Anonymous said...

Aaah. Cossing off items on lists. Nothing makes me feel more accomplished.

A Zen master encountering me would certainly despair. Do you think I could get an extra point or two for regular meditation?

Oh, dear. There I go again, worrying about accomplishment...

Anonymous said...

hello there,
this has really struck a cord with me.. i too am like the hare and the tortoise. My hare unfortunately is the dominant and often drives me to distraction(and others too). I so wish the tortoise would meet the hare half way (or even overtake )and a beautiful balance ensue! Thank you for your inspiring and beautiful blog.