Yesterday, a video was making the rounds: a “bestofyoutube” video. It is a montage of sped-up, long-shot, city-scape footage depicting the busy, fast-paced, worker-bee nature of the modern world. These shots were interspersed with pictures of individuals head-down, poring over papers, frowning at computer screens, obviously unhappy, unfulfilled, and unrewarded. Atop this montage is an audio from Alan Watts’ 1960 lecture on “What If Money Was No Object?”
Using binary reasoning, Watts asserts that people, when asked what they’d do if money was no object, invariably speak of some artistic, creative, or peaceful activity. His deduction is therefore that we all spend all our lives doing something we do not want to do. And his conclusion is that we should chuck it all and spend our lives doing what we want. His thesis:
Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way.
This sort of thinking really steams my clams. I lump it in with Oprah’s “follow your bliss” mantra, which culminated in The Secret, a book that is the modern-day equivalent of quackery and snake-oil salesmanship. These teachings, born of a bourgeois interpretation of Eastern philosophy, are narcissistic to the core, inherently antisocial, and at polar distances from their Zen origins.
First, imagine a world where everyone “followed their bliss.” Imagine it. Who would do all the crap jobs? Who would work at any job? I, for one, have never met someone who was never happier than when they were digging ditches, delivering packages, or doing other people’s taxes. There might be some out there, but I haven’t met them, and I’m betting there are fewer of them than there are people performing those duties every day.
Society is a fabric we weave of our daily toil, creating something better for all of us, built from our individual labors. You can’t form a society out of nothing but poets, artists, horseback riders, fishermen, and petrol-heads. To encourage people to do precisely and only what they love is to encourage them to turn their backs on their family, their friends, and society at large. It is a thoroughly egoistic adventure, the pinnacle of “me first” thinking, formulated by a man who lived in Berkeley, California, the Heartland of “I Want It All Now.”
Secondly, this is not a binary argument. This is not a black/white, on/off, is/isn’t situation. It’s a spectrum. Should we spend our lives doing nothing but what we detest? Of course not. We have a responsibility to ourselves—”responsible egoism,” if I may—to make our lives as happy as we can. But unless we go out and live off the land in a shed in the Montana woods, we’re a part of society, and we have responsibilities. Just as we shouldn’t be satisfied with misery, neither should we indulge our whims and passions to the detriment of those around us.
But none of this is pertinent because, as I said, it isn’t a binary argument. We can have both. We can be a part of society, work for a living, provide for our families, better our conditions, and still spend some time doing what it is we love. If we’re lucky, our daily job may, in part, be something we like to do or something we find enjoyable, and this is a worthy goal in itself. But it is not possible for most of us to make a living doing solely what it is we love to do. We must, therefore, find other time to do what we love. We can carve out some time—a few evenings a week, a day on the weekend, a chunk of time while on holiday—to indulge our passions. We can do both.
Lastly, I take issue with the assertion quoted above. Naturally, a short life spent in bliss is better than a long life spent in misery, but as we’ve seen, these are not the only two choices. Watts has set us a false dilemma, neither of which we must choose. By choosing a middle path and by maximizing the happiness we experience while still providing for our loved ones (two more things that are not mutually exclusive), we can live long, pursue our dreams, and achieve much more than we might by indulging our passions and desires alone.
While I am not an expert in Zen or Buddhism in general, I do believe that teachings such as these distort the origins they cite. Watts urges us “to do what we love” when instead we should strive “to love what we do.” That, in my opinion, is a surer path to inner peace.