Many people cherish a belief that there will be a time in their lives when they’re finally able to sit back and relax. After working hard for years, we’ll finally be happy with the level of success or wealth we’ve achieved, and feel entitled to rest and enjoy the fruits of our labour. But it often doesn’t work like this. Most of us depend on activity in the same way that we depend on distractions like television. We use activity as a way of keeping our attention focused outside ourselves.
Not long after leaving university, I took a temporary office job, in the pensions department of an engineering firm. I did a number of dreary jobs around that time, but this was undoubtedly the dreariest. There was a small room in the office full of shelves packed with dozens of boxes of old pension forms—one for every person who had ever worked for the company. My task was to sort the forms into alphabetical order. There were thousands of them, and it took me two whole months.
One of my colleagues was an old man called Jimmy. When I asked him how long he’d worked here, he replied, ‘Just a few months. I’m from a temping agency like you. I’m 66—I retired from my proper job about a year ago. I was working in insurance.’
‘So why did you start this job, just after retiring?’
I didn’t like having nothing to do,’ he said. ‘I like keeping myself busy.’
I can understand why he did this now, but at the time I found it amazing. Why would somebody who’d been set free from the routine drudgery of office work choose to go back to it, even though he didn’t need the money? From my point of view, he could have been staying in bed late, reading books, going for walks in the countryside, taking up new hobbies—but he’d chosen to shut himself up in a stuffy office all day again.
In this sense the term ‘human being’ is really a misnomer. One of our essential characteristics of human beings is that we find itimpossible to be. If anything, we are human doings. An indigenous anthropologist would probably nickname us ‘The creatures who can’t do nothing’ or perhaps ‘The creatures who can’t be alone with themselves.’
I don’t mean to disparage this impulse of ours to ‘keep busy.’ To a large extent we don’t have any choice. We have to work hard to keep our attention focused outside ourselves, because when we don’t, the consequences can be very negative. People who don’t havemuch structure or activity in their lives are more vulnerable to psychological problems. This is probably one of the main reasons why pop musicians, film stars and other extremely rich people are so vulnerable to drug addiction, depression and other problems. In the UK, there is a high incidence of drug problems amongst the aristocracy, for instance. There have been many cases of ‘privileged’ young aristocrats being arrested for heroin or cocaine possession, checking themselves into clinics for treatment and/or dying due to drug problems.
Research also shows that unemployed people are much more unhappy than the employed, with a higher level of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental problems. This isn’t just because of a lack of activity and structure, of course—other factors include the lower income, low social status and fewer social contacts—but it’s certainly an important factor. Retired people often suffer similar problems too. After a short ‘honeymoon’ period when they feel glad to be free of the pressure and the deadlines of work, they often begin start to feel disillusioned and even depressed. But why do we need to keep doing? Why does inactivity cause us such problems?
There seems to be fundamental psychological discord inside us. The problem is that our own ‘mind-space’—the place we enter when our attention isn’t focused externally—is a very uncomfortable place. Our own ‘psyche’, the consciousness we feel ourselves to be inside our heads, is so restless and discordant that it’s difficult for us to spend any time there. Think of two parents who argue all the time. There’s a terrible atmosphere in their house. Every time their teenage daughter comes home she senses an atmosphere of hostility which she knows can erupt into aggression at any moment. Every time she talks to her mother and father they’re irritable and snap back at her. They’re so wrapped up in their enmity for each other that they don’t have any time for her. As a result she tries to spend as much time away from the house as she can, spending her time at her friends’ houses and hanging around the park and the local shops. She only goes back when it’s absolutely necessary, for meals or for sleeping.
The only way we can stop doing and truly become human beings is by healing this discord inside us. We can only learn to be by learning to rest comfortably within our minds—which entails first making our minds a more harmonious place. And how to do that will be the topic of future blogs.