What Did You Do Today?

This week, I was rather forcefully advised that the root of all suffering and depression comes from the urge to acquire, from a ‘goal-centred’ way of life. This advice included charts, showing me just how this theory worked.

OK, I thought. Up to a point, yes, I agree. If you’re constantly demanding, ‘gimme’ with expectations of reward like a spoilt child, then you will very likely be disappointed.

This is one of the main cries of the modern world against capitalism, that constant marketed need for STUFF which we’re all supposed to have. We work to make money to buy stuff, but must have more stuff, so work harder… repeat.

I’m also aware that ‘desire’ is a key tenet in Buddhism, one of the Four Noble Truths. Numerous philosophers have covered it as well, in their exploration of how we work as human beings.

But something about those charts that I was shown rankled, stuck in my brain like an itch. Something’s wrong with this idea, said my subconscious.

Perhaps it’s the way it was sold to me – that the root of any depression that I might feel is because I’m constantly seeking gratification. No matter what it is, any gratification is temporary, therefore I’m destined to be disappointed, so am on a negative wheel of constant striving and disappointment. Doomed from the start.

Aside from the capitalist ‘stuff’ understanding of want, though, surely it’s the nature of every living thing to desire something? Or is it the balance between desire and need?

A baby cries. She wants something – reassurance, food, comfort (or a simple changed nappy). She is operating on instinct. So is this desire, or need?

When something is taken away, we realize how much we might want it – or need it. Telephones, money… food, oxygen.

So it seemed that rather than a conscious decision to want something for immediate pleasure or fulfilment, I’m trying to comprehend the animal need that keeps us moving. That need to survive, certainly, but also the need to not be in pain, not to suffer. To be healed, to live as best I can.

(Buddhism again covers this in its own unique manner, but I’m not well-versed enough in that to discuss such perspectives here. Worth exploring, though.)

So if it’s not the desire for Stuff that is causing the happy/sad cycle, I thought, perhaps it’s something more amorphous. Rather than a new iPad, I’m just wanting peace, happiness, stability?

Yes, it’s a desire. Yes, it’s more than an instinctive need. But I think it’s something that we all share. Again, this is a philosophical question that’s rattled on for years. But this is me. I’m looking for something practical, that I can work with.

One of the things that was highlighted with those charts was my desire to help others. A good thing, right? Nope – because it was a constant desire that could never be fulfilled, it was making me unhappy – so it’s bad.

So…. I should stop trying to help others?

The over-simplification here was staggering. System-logic – if A is true all the time, for all things, then B and C must follow. Cut and dried, no exceptions. Except here, A – the primary theory – seemed so flawed. And this truly made me start digging for the deeper source of what was wrong here.

What if it’s not a desire, but a need, on a deeper, instinctive level, for living things to help other living things? Cynics may disagree, but I cannot believe that we are all as inherently selfish as we are sometimes made out to be, as a species.

That baby cries. She needs something. She cannot fulfil its own needs. So we help.

This isn’t just a human reaction. Shamans teach that we are all connected. Animists posit that all living things have intrinsic value. So moving beyond the gratification/Stuff/gimme level… I see all around me the truth that we are seeking personal happiness and wellbeing through helping others. Our healing comes from that. Yes, reward is nice, but that connection is the key, that relationship with another.

So something I can work with, here. How about this:

What did you create today? What did you make? More than you think, perhaps.

So often, we don’t credit ourselves with the impact that we have on the world around us, human people and others. How much we do, without conscious awareness.

A good friend made her baby daughter happy by playing with her. My puppy dogs have tried to help in the same way, when they hear her crying. This is beyond species difference, this is simply natural, instinctive.

Today, I’ve made those puppy dogs happy by playing with them in turn. But I’ve also done things with my own creativity – I’ve made knitted creations for friends. I’ve made food to nourish my family. I (hopefully) made you smile – or think – by writing this. Those are intentioned acts, but still born of instinct to do. Others will respond. I can only hope the response is positive.

Every day, we are dynamic – we do so much. And it’s not ‘goal-oriented’, necessarily – sometimes it just is what we do. We try to be aware of our impact, as best we can… and from this can come so much happiness.

Yes, pain as well, certainly. But I’m presuming that you’re more likely to be trying to cause happiness than pain… I hope.

If we try to acknowledge that it’s not about the reward; that sometimes simply the act, the doing, is enough, if done with awareness, right intention, solid relationship. This is so central to my life practice, physical, mental and spiritual. This is what keeps me going.

What makes me sad is when I feel I’ve failed – not done something, or acted badly, or hurt another. Not so much a ‘goal not achieved’ as a discordant note in the melody of my day, my life… and potentially someone else’s. I can try to make up for this, but sometimes it’s done. I have to acknowledge that and move forward, which can be difficult. Such sticky guilt/shame feelings are often what hold us back, as our energy goes into them (despite the fact that they’re still done, unchangeable) rather than learning and moving forward.

So perhaps it’s truer to say that rather than beating ourselves up over impossible goals, we focus instead on what we have done, the truth of it? How that action relates to those around, and to other actions as we move along our path? How are we helping ourselves through others, learning and progressing in life?

We are all connected. I’m optimistic at heart – I believe that we all can do right for others if we try, through action or understanding. It’s the over-simplification of our motives that can cause us to give up before we start.

I see such actions around me, every day. This is my life, my spirituality – both are inextricable. As life is made up of a series of moments, so we acknowledge and take responsibility for them.

And sometimes realize that a smile, a laugh, a hug isn’t done for reward or achievement – it just is.

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6 Comments »

  1. I struggle with those same fail feelings. I also think there’s a heck of a lot any sane person ought to be unhappy about just now… the whole relationship between our culture and our home planet is a dangerous mess that could kill us all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is vital to be talking about what we can do. How much depression comes, not from desire, but from powerlessness in the face of that which is badly wrong?

    • druidcat said

      I was actually thinking about your words on this when I was writing, Nimue – as the systems put in place (such as those charts I mention) to sustain us seem only to frustrate us, and enhance that sense of being powerless in the face of… well, what? Tradition? Money? Expert opinion?

      All of which can be rattled by enough individuals standing up to say ‘No’…

      I’m seeing a lot of posts lately (including this one) which amount to ‘plant seeds’. Share inspiration. Incite action (any!). There’s the power of the individual, after all.

  2. Troy Young said

    Thank you so much for bringing this subject to light. It is difficult to find answers but it makes me think of one of my favorite quotes “Aspire To Inspire Before You Expire”. Also, as the Dalai Lama once said “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

  3. I don’t know where those charts came from, but they worry me. They suggest that whoever designed the charts – psychologists, maybe? or researchers of some kind? – believe that we would all be happier if we stopped worrying about other people.

    If suffering is helping others, give me more suffering, not less. Give me hospitality, friendship, kinship and love ANY day, over what modern society thinks is happiness. I will live in my own way, not in the way that modern ‘experts’ recommend.

  4. manonbicycle said

    Good piece. Depression can of course be due to a disorder in body biochemistry. Psychiatrists differentiate between endogenous and exogenous depression, and there are all the grey areas in between. Likewise suffering can be physical, caused through illness. I am mainly of a Buddhist persuasion, here duhkha [suffering] is considered to be caused by desire, but it is unwholesome desires that are the problem, not the aspiration that all beings be well and happy, including ourselves.

    A distinction could be made between craving and desire. Craving is the feeling that we must have something, that we cannot live without it. Desire is more natural and part of the human condition. We may desire a better job or to live in nicer surroundings, but we know we can live without it, it’s optional, it’s manageable. I think craving is the problem, it takes over our life and can destroy our happiness.

  5. elinmj said

    Thank you so very very much. Your thoughts were just what I needed, after a period of feeling ….”kind of living without a purpose or meaningfulness’ ish” :-)

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