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The Scipionic Circle 77: The Endless Cycle of 'Doing More', Diffusion of Responsibility, and Choiceless Awareness
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have.”
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Food for Thought
I. The Shifting Goalposts of Modern Life: The Never-Ending Cycle of 'Doing More'
“Research shows that this feeling arises on every rung of the economic ladder. If you’re working two minimum-wage jobs to put food in your children’s stomachs, there’s a good chance you’ll feel overstretched. But if you’re better off, you’ll find yourself feeling overstretched for reasons that seem, to you, no less compelling: because you have a nicer house with higher mortgage payments, or because the demands of your (interesting, well-paid) job conflict with your longing to spend time with your aging parents, or to be more involved in your children’s lives, or to dedicate your life to fighting climate change. As the law professor Daniel Markovits has shown, even the winners in our achievement-obsessed culture—the ones who make it to the elite universities, then reap the highest salaries—find that their reward is the unending pressure to work with ‘crushing intensity’ in order to maintain the income and status that have come to seem like prerequisites for the lives they want to lead.
“It’s not just that this situation feels impossible; in strictly logical terms, it really is impossible. It can’t be the case that you must do more than you can do. That notion doesn’t make any sense: if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time—no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations. We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.
“But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. (Your boss isn’t stupid: Why would she give the extra work to someone slower?) Figure out how to spend enough time with your kids and at the office, so you don’t feel guilty about either, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure: to spend more time exercising or to join the parent-teacher association—oh, and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate? Get around to launching the side business you’ve dreamed of for years, and if it succeeds, it won’t be long before you’re no longer satisfied with keeping it small. The same goes for chores: in her book More Work for Mother, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to ‘labor-saving’ devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him. ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,’ the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of ‘what needs doing’ that expands to fill the time available.” — From Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman.
II. Pluralistic Ignorance and Diffusion of Responsibility: The Paradox of Bystander Inaction in Emergencies
“We have a tendency to not act in situations where we are uncertain if there is danger and when we don’t feel individual responsibility. Also when we want to avoid embarrassment and when we’re among strangers. The more people, the more reduced we see our own responsibility. Just after 3 a.m., March 13, 1964 in New York City, Catherine Genovese, a 28-year old woman, was stabbed to death as she returned from her job. 38 people witnessed at least one of her killer’s three attacks from the safety of their apartment windows for 25 minutes without calling the police.. Why didn’t the neighbours help? Were they indifferent? Frightened? Why should they be afraid of calling the police from the safety of their own homes?
“A pair of psychology professors found the answer. No one had helped just because thirty-eight witnesses were present. A bystander to an emergency is unlikely to help when there are other people around. Why? They saw two reasons for this. First, we must interpret an event as an emergency. When we are uncertain, we have a tendency to look at people around us to see how they react. If others don’t react, we interpret that as evidence that it is not an emergency, and we therefore don’t react. We don’t want to be the ones that stand out in a crowd and risk embarrassment for acting in a non-emergency situation. But here comes the problem. If each person reasons the same way, everyone draws the same conclusion. ‘Since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. It can’t be an emergency.’ This is called pluralistic ignorance. The second reason is called diffusion of responsibility. The more people there are, the less personal responsibility we feel. We often rationalize by saying, ‘Someone else probably called the police.’ If we all think that way, no one will help. The more people we see around us, the less likely we are to help. We can’t force people to help. If we punish people for not helping in an emergency, we will only create an incentive for people to avoid the punishment by not getting involved. This will cause them to interpret a situation as a non-emergency. So, how should we act if we are involved in an accident in a public place and need help? We should be specific. ‘You there, in the blue shirt. This is an emergency. Please help me!’” — From Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger by Peter Bevelin.
III. Choiceless Awareness: Unearthing Personal Biases Through Mindful Observation
“This is a process my father [Bruce Lee] called ‘choiceless awareness.’ He adopted this term from Krishnamurti, one of his favorite philosophers. The idea is to have awareness of all that is happening around you and within you without judging it, without making a choice or creating a story about it while maintaining full awareness of it. See it purely for what it is. Experience it fully so that you can have a total experience rather than a partial (and therefore limited) one.
“Consider the situation when you see someone who annoys you coming over to talk to you. Because that person annoys you, you are prepared to be annoyed before they even open their mouths. But what if you were to drop your judgment and open yourself fully to the experience? Perhaps in having the ability to just stand back and observe this person without judgment, you might pinpoint what it is that annoys you so much, and you might go even further and figure out why that annoys you. And, more important, you might find out something about yourself in the process.
“Is there some understanding you need to develop within yourself to feel good or safe or connected in this person’s presence? Can you have compassion for this person and see them as someone who is struggling through life just as you are? Can you see how their own set of circumstances has led them to develop this way of interacting as their cultivated method of coping? A great amount of information might be available if you stop liking and disliking and simply observe.
“Another part of the choiceless awareness equation is what my father called ‘absence of thought.’ Absence of thought means not to be carried away by your thoughts in the process of thinking them. In other words, don’t get stuck on a particular thought and spin around it obsessively to the detriment of all the other sensory input that passes through your perception in the moment. So when the annoying person does that annoying thing, don’t get stuck there. ‘See? There is that annoying thing again. God, why does he do that all the time? Doesn’t he see how annoying that is? How could he not see how annoying that is? What an idiot.’ When this happens, you are no longer present. You are trapped in a box of annoyance from which there is no escape, and you are no longer seeing purely, and you are certainly not having a nonjudgmental awareness of the whole situation. And guess what: you’re no longer having a good time, either.
“Now, this doesn’t mean you have to spend time in annoying situations with annoying people and learn to like it. It simply means you get the opportunity to have a different experience and change your perspective. Most notably, you get to use the information you receive to know yourself better and understand what your biases are or what triggers certain reactions in you. You get to assess what behaviors need to be changed in yourself and what parts of yourself may need to be healed. In other words, you get to convert that negative energy into energy for yourself rather than give it all away to someone or something else. As my father said:
“I must give up my desire to force, direct, strangle the world outside of me and within me in order to be completely open, responsible, aware, alive. This is often called ‘to make oneself empty,’ which does not mean something negative, but means the openness to receive.” — From Be Water, My Friend: The True Teachings of Bruce Lee by Shannon Lee.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Søren Kierkegaard on reminiscing unlived futures:
“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you'll never have.”
II. Carl Jung on illuminating purpose in existence:
"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being."
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