“The most solid comfort is the thought that the business of one’s life is to help in some small way to reduce the sum of…degradation and misery on the face of this beautiful earth.” — Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)
The business of one’s life is a very businesslike expression. To me it suggests the way I spend most of my time: dealing with practical necessities like doctors’ appointments, medical bureaucracy, car repairs, meal planning, ensuring a sufficient supply of toilet paper, etc., etc.
Business could also be interpreted as one’s principal employment or job — in my case, zen priest. Here I would seem to be on solid ground with Evans’ statement: one could say the vow and activity of a zen priest is to help reduce the sum of misery in this beautiful world. But that’s not what I spend the lion’s share of my time and energy doing; it’s a mere fraction of both, the remainder I allow myself after everything else has been done. There’s the vow, and there’s the To Do list — notice which is in capital letters.
One of the most radical decisions we make is how to spend our time — which things we prioritize with lists and deadlines and capital letters. Reducing the sum of misery doesn’t usually make the to-do list (which can at least typographically be cut down to size). Why not? Maybe it’s too hard to check off? Does it meet the SMART criteria of goal-setting: specific, measurable, achievable, reasonable, time-based? Reducing the sum of misery as written isn’t specific or measurable, but it can be made so with little effort, and in myriad ways. And some have used significant and meaningful, rather than specific and measurable, as the first two SMART criteria. Furthermore, what about the possibility inherent in “dumb” goals? Goals that are outsized, immeasurable by current methods, perhaps impossible, unreasonable, and lengthy? Are these goals not worth aiming at? We wouldn’t have many of history’s innovations if someone hadn’t been stupid enough to try them, and keep trying past the point of all reason.
One of the things that bothers me most is when I lose track of what matters, when it gets buried by things that I’ve thoughtlessly imbued with a false sense of urgency. Yes, the car must be fixed and the laundry done. But maybe those tasks could be interspersed with some attempts at misery-reducing, instead of relegating the real work, the central vow of my life, to the time that’s left over after the inbox is clear.
Because that time doesn’t exist. The inbox will never be clear; we know that for the cherished delusion it is. As long as we’re alive, life generates things that must be done. Even after we die, our lives continue to create things that must be done, except that someone else has to do them. But every moment we’re alive, we’re deciding what’s most pressing on that list or in that box. Yet the biggest, most important things live outside such containers, because they’re things we don’t know how to write down, or don’t think we have to. 1) Pay attention to the people I love…Check! 2) Enjoy this fleeting life…Check!
When one of the people I love left for work this morning, I was attempting to muster the energy for a day of extricating the truth from insurance agents, checking legal documents, doing laundry, retrieving prescriptions, and visiting the doctor. As Chris walked out the door, he called down the hall, “Write something — that’s the most important thing.”
Knowing in a given moment what’s the most important thing is one of life’s greatest challenges, its constant koan. The moments add up quickly, and no one wants to get to the end of them and realize we were in the wrong business the whole time.
What’s the business of your life? Are you busy doing it?