We Are Taking Ourselves Far Too Seriously
We are facing a number of real problems. Some even argue one or two of them amount to existential threats. It doesn’t get any more real than that. But are our problems, at least in part, a product of our tendency to take ourselves too seriously?
Take, for example, the negative correlation between time spent on vacation by citizens of developed countries and their per capita carbon footprint.
No, it’s not a perfect correlation — for example, the average Canadian enjoys twice the time off as the average American does and still emits almost exactly as much CO². Still, the UK and France lead the developed world in days off with nearly twice as much time off as Canada enjoys and nearly four times as much as the US and each emit roughly a third as much carbon dioxide. In case you’re wondering, though it isn’t listed in the second chart above Spain too emits about a third as much.
But even if it was a perfect correlation, correlation doesn’t equal causation, right? True enough. Nonetheless, it’s worth putting Oscar Wilde’s aphorism to the test. If what’s getting in the way of helping ourselves and the planet isn’t that we aren’t trying hard enough but that we’re often trying too hard, that’s worth knowing. We might learn that being a bit more comfortable going with the flow and sustainability are linked in some nonintuitive way. After all, what do we have to lose? Even if the test revealed no relationship between sustainability and taking life a little less seriously we would still reap the other benefits of taking things a bit more in stride.
America may lag far behind the rest of the world when it comes to days off but it’s a world leader in consumption. The United States accounts for 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s energy consumption. This exceptional energy use can be explained in large part by the fact that what Americans lack in days away from work they make up for on the weekends and on their few and far between paid holidays by shopping.
It may seem counterintuitive but giving people a few extra days off could help break the consumption habit. Though many people have come to associate material possessions with happiness, this association is the emotional equivalent of a sugar high. More time off gives people both the time and space to explore deeper and ultimately more sustainable means of finding fulfillment.
Describing research conducted at the University of Colorado at Boulder, assistant professor of psychology Leaf Van Boven stated “We found that people receive more enduring pleasure and satisfaction from investing in life experiences than material possessions.” Among the reasons, Van Boven explains, is that we value accomplishments far more than we do things and that “experiences foster relationships” since “we tend to do things with other people.” Even solitary experiences provide us with stories to share with others in future social contexts.
So was Oscar Wilde right in claiming that life is “too important to be taken seriously”? After all, the opposite of serious is frivolous and life hardly seems as inconsequential as that adjective would suggest. Certainly, if we limit ourselves only to the usual either/or choice suggested by a single word and its antonym we would probably have to conclude that Wilde was underestimating the importance of our existence, to say nothing of the value of other living things.
However, either/or choices are too simplistic a model to choose for something as complex as life and all the experiences that it entails. The word acceptance comes to mind as an alternative to serious; one that suggests a degree of peace with the world as it is without any of the indifference or devil may care attitude that readily comes to mind with words like frivolous. Acceptance is a term imbued with both humility and uncertainty. It does not imply inaction in the face of injustice but rather the kind of “actionless action” advocated within the Eastern philosophy of Taoism.
Verse 48 of the Tao Te Ching describes the concept commonly referred to as “actionless action” in this way:
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
“Actionless action” does not imply doing nothing at all. It can best be described as acting out of necessity rather than in an effort to control the outcome. This is the message of the last two lines above. It is also the message of many contemporary system theorists who advise us to trust the process.
Trusting the process does not mean a blind faith that the process will always produce the desired outcome. Indeed, even the outcome we wished for initially we often find out later has produced outcomes we neither wanted nor anticipated. Trusting the process means understanding that the process itself is meaningful in its own right. It is the product of millions of years of biological trial and error and tens of thousands of years of cultural trial and error. It shouldn’t be dismissed just because we think we know better.
It is being increasingly suggested that outcomes we don’t like are evidence that the process is “rigged” against us: If our candidate loses an election, we don’t get the promotion we think we deserve, or if something else that matters to us doesn’t go our way then there must be something wrong with the system. If we take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion it follows that there is nothing for us to learn or “acquire” from the experience and nothing for us to “drop” that is superfluous; there is no way to approach or consider the process and our relationship to it other than the way it was set up and it was set up by others to ensure we lose.
Upon closer analysis, what we desire here is control over the process. We envy the control we assume the winners in this “rigged” system enjoy. We have not grasped the Taoist wisdom that the world “cannot be controlled by interfering”. We are part of the process and flow of existence, not its masters. In assuming we can control the process at all we are taking life too seriously. To close with another Oscar Wilde quote, “It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.”