“The individual increasingly feels himself obstructed by his own cautiousness.” -Alan Watts
I’m not a grumpy old man; I’m a happy young man (kind of) who likes technology, so I will not be going off on a rant about the modern world (Back in my day, we had to get information the old-fashioned way—with dial-up internet!). But I am interested in how technological changes have affected our spiritual life. Lots has changed since the industrial revolution, and even more interesting, the rate of change has changed. I don’t fear new technology, much, and I like having wide access to vast amounts of information—but I do believe we have to be careful about how much innovation obstructs our path toward the real goal of life–living. We have to be careful when “improvements” make things worse, when they block us from living.
I believe we are innately spiritual people, and our search for meaning should be the one wild ride of our lives. But we are drowning too deeply in information, technology, and to-do lists. We are obstructed by our own advances. If, as many modern spiritual thinkers and philosophers say, our goal should be to live in the now, be aware of the present, embrace the moment, etc., then we need to come to terms with the fact that our technology does the opposite. TV, movies, (even books) are forms of escape—leaving the moment. Sadly, if we were to really watch TV dramas about what most Americans are actually doing, we’d be watching people watch TV, or surfing the web, or texting. Those are distractions—but what about obstructions? What about things that literally block us from our own creativity, our own individuality?
Obstructions come in the form of bureaucracies, procedures, paperwork, excessive meetings and information, and cleverness without content.
The quote above comes from an Alan Watts lecture that is at least thirty years old, but the problem he talks about is even more prevalent today. The worlds of business, health, education, politics, etc., have become so complicated, individuals are drowning in procedures and steps. I feel this in my own work as a special education teacher, where every year a new form or procedure is created for us, usually as a reaction to some previous problem or mistake. We are at the point now where we generate hundreds of pages of paper for every student, every year. We spend more time holding meetings, updating contact logs, sending out legal notices, emailing parents data, fullfilling the legal requirements of three contact attempts, than actually teaching. I know doctors who feel the same way. In fact, now when I take my kids in for a checkup, the nurse and the doctor spend most of the visit sitting in front of a computer, asking questions over their shoulder while they click the mouse. Just last week, the doctor showed me on his computer that my son was obese based on his Body Mass Index. The real five-year-old boy—who was sitting unnoticed on the examination table—is lean and strong, a biking, skateboarding, tennis and soccer playing fool, and you can hardly pinch an inch of flab on him. But the computer said it. (Must have been all those rocks he keeps in his pockets). So now he’s not supposed to drink juice.
Family life can be obstructed too. My sons come home from school each week with reams of paperwork—and this is Kindergarten and second grade. Going through folders, reviewing homework, reading notices and bulletins, and letters of advice from principals sometimes feels like a full-time evening job. It exhausts me to watch my wife do all that. We love to read as a family, but last year my second grader had so many reading logs from different teachers, I had to shorten our reading time each day to fill out all the forms that proved I was reading.
Every year now, to keep our insurance copays low, my wife and I have to prove we exercising by filling out online surveys and tallying our daily “step” ratio. I have a drawer full of free pedometers to prove it. I feel like I’m constantly being told to do something “easy” that will improve my life, which turns out to waste my life.
So, this is where Give Up and Die can be the most powerful tool. GIVE UP all that is not essential, AND remember you will DIE soon (in five minutes or fifty years). Evaluate your obstructions. What really matters right now because there is only now? What is one thing you can give up doing in the next week? My wife and I just made the decision to give up doing our kids’ school fundraisers, which is centered around wasting my time selling useless stuff to other people. I would rather drop some cash in the donation box and call it a day.
For one thing, maybe you can start by giving up expectations you have for other people. A lot of the obstructions in life, I believe, are caused by people who can’t let things go or expect too much. A complaint generates another form to fill out. A lawsuit creates more bureaucracy. If we all let go of needing some things, maybe we’d all ease the burdens on each other. I told my wife to give up writing thank you cards every time someone does something nice. Especially when it is expected. What a waste of time, after a wedding, to write all those thank you cards. Duh. We had to buy the gift. It’s a rule. And, duh, you actually picked the gift out, it was on your registry. So why send a card as if you’re surprised it happened. If you expect a thank you card, then you did not really give the gift with the right attitude.
My wife told me I was a stupid man. I decided to give up telling my wife what to do.
Give Up and Die, you’ll be glad you did.
For more on giving up and letting go, see: