Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one improves our lives?
Hardship and toil now bring material and emotional reward later. If I suffer now, I can be happy later. Leisure and joy are only won through hard work and discipline.
We tolerate abuse in the present because we believe we will be granted freedom and ease in retirement or in the afterlife. We believe it is right that we toil now in order to be worthy of leisure or security in another time/place.
No one knows what comes next; enjoy the moment. Make life in the present moment as wonderful as possible. Leisure and joy are our birthright.
Let’s make this present moment the best it can be because we don’t know what will happen in the future.
During the Roman empire, there came a time when the continued uprising and revolt of the masses threatened to topple civilization. The people, led by revolutionaries like Spartacus, refused to accept the terrible living and working conditions of slavery (although slave life then was in some ways better than modern wage slavery). At this time, the religious and civic leaders of the empire changed their message to try to quell the rebellion. The church had functioned thus far on tithings and offerings: people gave coins to the church and received in return the priest’s prayers to the gods to deliver whatever they desired, be it luck in battle or wealth or fertility. Now the church began to tell people that the desire for fulfillment, riches, and rest would be met in the next life, especially if they toiled in labor through this one. This paradigm shift successfully allowed Rome to continue building civilization for a while longer.
In our modern time of relative affluence (in some parts of the world), this idea is being rejected on a larger scale. Many people, especially youth, have simply lost faith in the idea that governmental programs like social security will be available for their retirement, or have stopped believing that they will be rich or happy in the afterlife. Yet the idea remains prevalent that we are worthy of future rewards if only we can work really hard and endure depravity now. Anyone who dreams of buying a house, a car, or a piece of land has to believe on some level that the work they do now, even if it’s exhausting, will buy them some bit of joy or security in the future.
Human beings naturally crave joy, and the promise of it is enticing enough that we are willing to work for it. That’s why the belief in necessary suffering caught on in Rome and why it continues to work for our civilization – humans want joy and leisure, and even the promise of it is better than no chance of it at all. The tragic aspect of this belief is that when we cling to the idea of future fulfillment, we can no longer feel it in the present. We forget that it is possible to experience joy and relaxation right now. It is as if we are beating ourselves over the head with a stick, and instead of stopping the motion, we take pills to soothe our headache. We continue beating ourselves because we believe that sometime in the future we will be allowed to stop. We feel we don’t deserve to feel good unless we have suffered and sacrificed and beat ourselves up sufficiently. This may sound absurd, but it is deeply ingrained in our habits. Do you ever catch yourself saying, “I can only take a break once I get this done” or “If I finish doing this thing I don’t want to do, only then I can do something I want”? We think that if we work discontentedly for long enough, we will then be able to be happy once we have enough money to buy a house, or some land, or travel for a while. In effect, we are agreeing to be miserable and overworked now in exchange for the promise of leisure and joy. But when we buy that house, or land, or take that trip, we still have to pay the mortgage or the taxes or work harder to renovate the new property once we own it, or return home from the trip exhausted and broke.
What if, instead of feeling we must work hard to earn rest and freedom, we worked toward balanced living every day so that we could experience joy and harmony every day? If we really value ourselves, we don’t have to feel guilty for experiencing leisure without having “worked for it”. This doesn’t mean that we should do nothing all day every day. Constant leisure is as imbalanced as constant work. It is the balance between the two, and the frame of mind we keep no matter what we are doing, which generates a sense of well-being.
On a visceral level, we are made for joy. It takes far more muscles to frown than to smile. Our nerve endings relay pleasure impulses to the brain at a much higher rate than pain. We can be happy in the present moment. We are worthy of joy and health right now. More than that, we owe it to the world to spread joy and beauty and good feeling, in trade for all the food and resources we take in for our sustenance. It is our happiness, our song and dance, our co-creation, which we owe for life – not our suffering and misery.
When you walk among people in our current culture, how often do you see poor posture and downcast, tired eyes? When was the last time you heard a belly laugh or saw a genuine smile? How many people do you personally know who have lived the dream of owning their own house and/or land who are joyful and vibrant? Has achieving that dream led them to a more joyful existence?