From the weekend:
The curtains shield me from the merciless Sun that remains deprived of attention from the unusual downpour yesterday; ceiling fan whirring, the house is quiet besides the sound of occasional vehicles from the highway nearby and everyone is engrossed in their own things to do. Feeling rather relaxed from a weekend of family time and thankful for this time to reflect, my MacBook plays indie music I have recently been introduced to with audio clear as crystal while I type this: this piece is about the ‘stop doing and just be’ mantra that has increasingly perpetuated my hopes of leading an intentions-based life.
The morning crowd that joins me on the East-West Line towards my workplace every morning holds a familiar tension. I recall it from the mornings I was heading to school. There is a congregation of workers from all walks of life – “workers” because we are all working, always doing something. All task-oriented, ready to check off a list of ‘To-do’s that we list in our heads before the day even begins. We are workers that take all forms: some in suit and tie, others in the school-designed uniforms and a few in baggy jeans and flip-flops even. The similarity we share is the fervor with which we seek a “purposeful” life. Increasingly, I find this passionate search for purpose and meaning lost in translation. They have become a tyranny of expectations, never-ending ‘To-do’s, our hastened footsteps and the shoving into trains. Perhaps our addiction to our mobile devices stems from hopes of finding distraction from thinking about things we have to do. These ‘To-do’s have turned into our anxiety: our inability to be responsive rather than reactive and our selfishness in what we have been conditioned to view as a zero-sum game. (Ironically, in this ‘game’ there are no prizes and no ‘fun’.) It seems we have almost completely misunderstood, for this search for fulfilment should only leave us more fulfilled and not less.
A recent article I chanced upon illustrated our meaningless rat race as a continuous obsession to “get into” something spectacular in the next stage of our lives. The “Singapore success story” that propagates the prestige, prosperity and certainty that comes with committing to certain professions only adds fuel to the fire. Do well for the Primary Six Leaving Examination so you can “get into” a “good” secondary school, then do well for ‘O’ Levels so you can “get into” a “good” Junior College, then “get into” University, then “get into” this industry. Then what? All this doing would have contributed no more to our being than to our being in someplace – how fulfilled, then, might we feel when there seems to be nothing else to “get into”?
My favourite read of all time, The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli mentions the Swimmer’s Body Illusion. This illusion is one where we get the causal relation of two closely-knitted ideas wrong – using the example of a swimmer, we play with the idea of “being a swimmer” and “having a fit body that swimmers typically have”. The illusion might lead us to think “Wow, I wish I could be a swimmer so that I would have a fit body.” Actually, it is flawed to think so, as it first takes one with a fit body to be a swimmer. In that same way, there is little meaning in counting on “getting into” an institution or industry to change who we are. The “who we are” part should come first.
All that said, I acknowledge the difficulty of “stop doing and just be” when the way we use social media (a large proportion of our brain’s ‘food’) encourages us to celebrate each other for the things we do more than for the people that we are. I am a self-admitted workaholic and the crammed words in my planner that list the many things to do in a day stand testament of that label. At this point, I propose the attempt at an intentions-based life – an idea adopted from a read during my ‘A’-Levels insomnia earlier. Do the things we do, for the intentions we have about the people that we hope to be rather than for the sake of doing – that, is the challenge. Then it wouldn’t be “meet him for an afternoon out” but “be a good company and friend”, not “update my bankbook” but “be responsible for my savings” and scratch “go for weekly run”, it’s “keep fit because it is empowering”.
In that light, then, my weekend of doing little and just being has been priceless.