As I walked in to the pantry, I saw my friend sitting on a chair deep in thought, I approached him and asked him what happened. He first denied anything had happened but after coaxing he finally relented and replied more to himself than to me — “Everyday I drag myself to work even though there’s no fun in it. I long to go back home as soon as I’m on road. I pass time at work as mindlessly as possible. I don’t want to think, lest the banality of the work reminds me how much life I’m wasting just by being there. Every night at logout, I pack my bags relieved the day is over and as I walk I feel sad that in our march to the grave, yet another day is wasted.
But, shouldn’t I be thankful of the job I have? I am; especially when I see the folks working at the coffee day and the mall I frequent. I’m better than those folks working for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and earning peanuts. I’m definitely better than them. Then why cry? Everyone has to work to survive. The actor you see smiling on the screen is working, the developer marketing your favourite app is working, the usher who guides you in the cinema is working. Who is not? Do all of them feel the same way? Do you feel the same way? Are they the same emotionally bereft meaningless shell I feel I’m sometimes? Is it lack of passion that throttles us into this path? Or is it the inherent nature of work that reminds how purposeless life is?”
I didn’t know what to respond. He smiled and walked away. There was a reason why I was silent. Who can deny they did not feel this way at one point of time or the other? But, is changing job a solution? Or is the problem in the person? Or in what we call work? Why did life become like this suddenly? Why are we stuck in jobs we hate, buying stuff we don’t like, running a race we never wanted to be a part of? As a society we all play our part in making life easier for the other and in doing so earn our living. What if I don’t see myself adding value, what if I wanted to add a different kind of value? What if I didn’t want to add any value? Can I exist? Is there a scope for change?
When society started, people were producers — if one produced paddy, the other wheat, yet another milk, meat, etc., and they exchanged their products with each-other in barter. When this enterprise grew, people realised the need to have a common exchange — a medium — to simplify these transactions. So, came in ‘money’. This trade is fine, is good — the basis of an economy. But, with man’s inherent nature to think — to make things better for himself and others lead him to innovate and come up with tools and machines (industrial revolution) which eased his life and promised him more ‘time’ in hand to pursue whatever he wanted. If a farmer could plough his filed in a day, a tractor brought that time down to half a day. This brought-in a fundamental shift in the way men started to think — why produce when we can ‘outsource’ to an expert — give it to someone else or to something else to do it more efficiently and save time. It made sense, after all time is important — so we started procuring more — to free our time, but without realising we started spending so much time, money and health in procuring these ‘life enablers’ that we now have no time for ourselves. Not just that, in some pockets of society people love these life enablers, these tools, luxuries so much that earning them itself gives meaning to their life. Businesses which depend on selling these goods market themselves psychologically so well that we end up buying these things on impulse than on necessity and reason. Given this appetite and an economy which runs on binge buying and having the latest and greatest considered a social status, can we stop ourselves? If we can’t, doesn’t it mean we need to put in more number of hours to get these stuff which I don’t need and whose purpose is ironically to free our time?
The fundamental flaw in this model is that man is pleasure seeking. It is true, man is pleasure seeking, but the problem arises when we think man is pleasure seeking only. After some point man become purpose driven, meaning-driven. If not to others, his life has to make sense atleast to himself/herself and when we don’t see any meaning to our existence though we have a lot of tools and technologies to ‘enhance’ our lives we become hollow inside and just acquiring these tools cannot give meaning to our lives. So, we question ourselves, is this life?
Also, when systems become so big – like our society, the role we play becomes minuscule often becoming meaningless when looked at in isolation. As a software engineer all I can probably see sitting before a computer and writing lines of code day after day, as a teacher teaching students the same lessons year after year, as a call centre agent talking to faceless customers feigning empathy at their troubles, all are a part of a grand system, but when looked at in isolation are nothing more than chores we hate to perform and it is not easy to push ourselves to see a higher meaning in that work. And, then one fine day, we ask ourselves “Am I meant to switch cranks?” Is this it to life?
So what to do? What advice would I give my friend? What advice would I follow? I do not have a definite answer, but here is what I discovered might help:
1) Control your desires — not because you cannot fulfil them but because they add no value. I’ll give my personal example here — this year I was very tempted to upgrade to an iPhone 6 but a casual remark from my wife who said that it’s no different from the one I’m using except increase in screen size got me thinking. It was true. If once upon a time we bought to fill-in a need, today we are buying just to get the latest even though the value they add is minimal. But, the amount of time/money you spend to acquire this is not worth it. It is better spent elsewhere.
2) Change your job even to a low paying one if the nature of work gives you fulfilment – like volunteer services, teaching, arts.
3) If that is not an option, atleast spend sometime everyday in activities which give you fulfilment — like cultivating hobbies.
4) Keep reading & thinking. Finding meaning to human existence is a philosophical topic with no end but that does not mean we haven’t made any progress, keep reading and keep thinking on what you read, who knows which insight will change our lives?
Is it easy to follow the above advice? No, it is not. It’s an uphill battle against all we’ve been thought and all we see. But, our path was never meant to be a lemming. It is meant to matter, if not to others atleast to us. It’ll be a lonely walk, but you are not alone.