Saturday, December 23, 2006

Making an effort

Today's image is one of bikes outside a factory in China.

For the last twenty years I have spent a great deal of time in China. I go there three or more times a year and spend weeks at a time working with manufacturers.

Generally speaking, the people there have a lot less than we do (compare the picture to the parking lot you park your car in at work and think it over for a second. This is their parking lot. Big difference, isn't there?) They don't have the privileges, freedoms, posessions and wealth that we take for granted here in the west. Because of this, I think, many of them have a better valuation of what they do and what they earn.

This is clear from their work ethic. They work hard. They work long hours. They work diligently. All of this is especially true of their young people. They are on the whole eager to achieve something real for themselves.

I contrast this to what I see in young Americans. The majority of them seem to me to be listless, lacking in effort. They see themselves as entitled and they feel they have the luxury of as much time as they want to pull themselves together. They are arrogant about the privilege they were born into, and their efforts in life are, sadly, weak.

There is an old saying the the Gurdjieff Work, "weak in life- weak in the work." Another way of putting this is that if one can't even manage to be ordinary, to do ordinary things, one cannot achieve any progress spiritually, because to be effective in an ordinary manner is a minimum requirement if one has any aspirations to being extraordinary. Gurdjieff called it being an Obyvatel, a "good householder." We see it in other practices, too: in Zen, over and over again, when the master points in a direction, it is in the direction of meeting ordinary responsibility: chop wood, carry water.

Just being completely ordinary is the heart of the path.

Our culture has produced a generation- or perhaps two or three- obsessed with the extraordinary. Every event has to be a bigger, better special effect than the one before it. Every car has to be larger, every house designed with more square footage and stuffed with more bigger stuff. Nothing escapes this disease of inflation. Go shopping for household goods: even our towels and potholders are bigger than they need to be.

Marching relentlessly along with it come the generations that that want to be extraordinary before they are ordinary. Chopping wood and carrying water are beneath them. The lie on the couch playing video games or surfing the web, dreaming of how utterly grand they are as they stumble along in real life doing little or nothing . I contrast this to the factories I visit in China, where 18 year olds are hunched over sewing machines making the towels and pillows we are stuffing our big houses with.

They work. We consume.

Perhaps this is nothing more than the standard conceit of youth, but I don't think so. Our media and our culture of outright materialism has manipulated values until life begins to present itself as some surreal form of lottery where everyone is already a winner. America has signed on to a cultural delusion which asserts that we are better than others and don't need to make the efforts they do, because we're so terrific and so special. And, chide the patriotic flags and slogans on our bumper stickers, don't you dare disagree with us!

It's a cult of specialness. Not only do we worship our own specialness but we publicly demand that everyone else recognize it.

Arrogance of this kind leads us into quagmires like Iraq, where we start out by aggressively misunderstanding everything and find ourselves in the midst of confusion and conflict that we measure with denial instead of humility.

Pride goeth before a fall.

This isn't just a cultural malaise. The cancer ultimately extends its crablike limbs into the muscle of our spiritual lives, convincing us that we are better than others. We sleep- we dream- and we do not do enough in an inner or an outer sense. Our essence- the heart of our inner life- becomes an Iraq, invaded and colonized by alien values. Our inner parts implode in tension and warfare.

To take a more active inner stance is needed. As individuals, we have to believe in ourselves, value ourselves, and be willing to work with humility, with diligence, on organizing our ordinary life. Of doing the laundry, washing the dishes, showing up for work on time. Getting the simple stuff done and getting it done effectively.

No one is special. Every last one of us is headed for the same sobering place, no matter how much noise we make and how many fireworks we shoot off on the way there.

It's best we roll up our sleeves, and get down to the daily business of remembering how to be effectively ordinary.

To me, that's making an effort.


  1. Totally agree with your views on the Chinese, although I might be a bit biased since I am one.

    A few of my relatives in the north live in awful conditions (no toilet, few possessions). When my dad offered to take them into a 5* hotel they declined.

    Its because they are happy with what they have. Some people complain that the Chinese don't have enough freedom but I get the impression they don't really care, their lives are happy enough.

    What a refreshing post! Nice to hear something nice about the Chinese other than the usual rubbish.

  2. Thanks. I'm a long time admirer of the Chinese spirit and culture and not ashamed to admit it. I have had a wonderful time in my life in China. The Chinese and other Asian people I know have become not just good business partners but terrific lifelong friends.

    The west should learn to respect, support, and participate in the new flowering of this great culture. To do any less is to engage in a pettiness of spirit. It's better to act less out of fear and more from compassion.


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