“The Ends Justify the Means”

Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one improves our lives?

The ends justify the means. Getting things done and achieving results are what matters.

In our society, power and money are valuable regardless of how they are obtained. We prioritize getting things done, we emphasize results and outcomes, and we reward accomplishments and achievements.

OR

The process (of going somewhere, or making something, or living) is valuable in itself. We learn and experience along the way. We must get some things done to meet our basic needs, but it is important that we enjoy our bread labor.

In our current culture, money and power speak for themselves and are inviolate. It doesn’t matter how you got your money/power as long as you have it. This common belief explains why the CEO of a rich tobacco company gets just as much “V.I.P.” status wherever he goes as the CEO of a successful recycling company. Likewise, as “consumers” we are encouraged to buy products impulsively without considering the process or resources required to make them – having the object is more important than how it came to us. The fashion industry exemplifies this dynamic. Many expensive clothes are made for a fraction of their retail price under sweatshop conditions and quickly fall apart, yet we still pay high prices for them because of the status and power they represent for us as possessions. What we value, culturally, is the power we associate with the product, with little concern for the emotional or environmental costs in process of making it.

This belief goes right down to how we view time. In our current culture, we count time. We watch the clock because we want to get more done in a day and make efficient use of our time. The favorite adage “time is money” and the idea that time can be “spent” or “wasted” demonstrate the cultural importance of “being productive,” and getting things done. On an individual level, this belief is so ingrained that many of us feel we are only valuable for what we can produce or accomplish. Hence, we feel depressed or angry if we “spend” a whole day reading or watching movies or talking with friends when we could have “got something done” or made some money instead. The drive to be productive and therefore worthy is so strong that people literally work themselves to death, or at least to injury and dis-ease. When injury or illness forces us to rest, we struggle with feeling that we are of no value to the world because we can’t “do” (produce) anything.

The emphasis on product extends to our cultural perspective on art. To be sure, many artists critique our cultural propensity to value only the finished piece as it sits on the shelf or hangs on the wall. Works like those of Andy Goldsworthy challenge this view, as they emphasize connection with the community of life and the sense of joy and wonder at the process of creating beauty with the materials the earth provides. This work challenges the viewer to pay more attention to the creative process and the relationships and resources involved in it. Yet in general, culturally, we only consider something “art” if it is presented to us in a finished form, uplifted on a pedestal. Our tendency to value the finished product neglects the importance of a joyful and conscientious creative process. Rarely do artists come under criticism for using toxic materials or exorbitant amounts of resources, because art is considered a justifiable end in itself.

Culturally, we excuse a well-known artist (or a well-known scientist, for that matter) from concerns about environmental and social impact, and also from common social conventions. Many famous artists’ abusive behaviors — alcoholism and womanizing, for example — toward loved ones or themselves are treated as necessary casualties of genius. Our cultural focus on the product of art stifles the innate creativity in each person — we think that because we can’t produce a perfect finished painting like the one a famous artist made, that we are not artistic or creative. Wouldn’t it serve us better to view life as art and encourage each person to bring creativity to everything they do in daily life rather than placing a few talented geniuses on a pedestal?

We view travel similarly. Our culture encourages people to work for years to build up retirement funds with the dream of being able to travel to “exotic” places in comfort and style, without a thought toward cost or environmental impact. We gain recognition if we have “been places,” even if we only stayed 2 days. Being a “traveled” person is an ego boost in our culture. Travel also represents an escape for us, a carrot that keeps us running on the unhappy treadmill of the daily grind. We agree to suffer through our lives in order to achieve the result that for 2 weeks a year we can go somewhere else and be happy, or so we tell ourselves. Artistic expression and travel experience are prized possessions in our culture, things we can list in a conversation that grab people’s attention, regardless of how we went about those experiences or the environmental or social costs associated with them. The message is: the end product or goal matters, but the process or journey means nothing.

Our cultural beliefs about schooling provide another poignant example. Civilized education is a process of accumulating information: the pupil spends the expected number of years in school absorbing facts or skills which he/she can list or demonstrate, and graduates with more knowledge. (Or, in some cases, the pupil merely passes the appropriate tests and benchmarks without actually absorbing any new information.) What is valued in our culture is the encyclopedic knowledge of facts, dates, figures, theories, and techniques. When we face a problem, we seek help from experts who presumably possess a lot of knowledge. When we think of education, we think of a stack of books. The “educated” are those who have read each one, or who appear to have read each one, and “know” (own) the information and ideas in them. Standardized testing is our culture’s way of measuring how much knowledge students possess. Once a pupil passes the test or graduates from the institution, he or she is considered educated. As far as our culture is concerned, learning ends there.

What this approach neglects is the process of learning itself. Have you ever met someone with encyclopedic book knowledge about a subject but who, when challenged to learn a new skill or solve a real-life problem on the spot, fumbles? How many students graduate from educational institutions with the ability to learn on their own? In our schools we teach people how to absorb (or appear to absorb) information from books and lectures, but we rarely manage to teach people how to learn and think on their own, nor how to find opportunities to learn in the school of everyday life. The most important skill any student can gain is enjoyment of the process of learning. Yet this aspect is often crushed in young people within the context of standardized tests and yearly benchmarks. Why is it so important that each person learn the same set of facts and skills, rather than that each person be empowered to learn at their own pace?

Even those who are inspired to continue learning throughout their lives feel that the only way to learn something is to absorb information from an external source: attend a lecture, read a book, or take a class. These tools are useful, but they are again external sources of information and cannot do our learning for us. How much can we really remember from a 2-hour lecture or a weekend class in which we are bombarded with information outside our realm of experience? Often the most profound learning experiences occur when we have little information or help from outside sources but must engage our own powers of observation and experimentation to figure something out. It may take more time, but the confidence we gain in our ability to learn and the lessons we take away from such an experience remain deeply ingrained in us. Books, classes, and workshops can certainly be inspiring and useful, and many books and workshops involve a lot of hands-on activities which help to integrate personal experience with new information. Yet in general, culturally, we learn by absorbing facts into our own personal pile of possessed knowledge. Knowledge is a product in our culture, bought and sold in the industry of education, and wisdom is almost unheard of.

These examples of a product-oriented approach to life in our cultural perspective on time, art, travel, and schooling reflect an overemphasis on outcomes and achievements in our culture. This style of thinking is so prevalent now that we see people rushing through their entire lives just to get to the end. It is expected that children and youth might be more focused on end results and external appearances, while they try to prove their capabilities and build up their identity/ego, self-worth, and sense of belonging (more on this in Part II). There is nothing wrong with it. But there is also so much more to life than that, and it benefits us greatly as individuals if we can develop the patience and wisdom necessary to savor each moment of all our activities and experiences.

With a more process-oriented approach, we might go so far as to co-create/manifest a beautiful object (a piece of jewelry or a basket, for example) just for the joy of making it, then give it away or leave it behind somewhere. The length of time we “spend” on something and the quantity of the result is far less important with this mindset than the quality of our time and the feeling we put into what we do. We are each valuable for our way of being in the world, not only for what we accomplish. Everything we create or earn will be returned to dust again someday, be it a house or a retirement fund. Only our memories, stories, and experience can be taken with us for certain in this world, and who really knows for sure about the next. So it may serve us better to also value the process. Savor the time it takes to play catch with a child, carve a spoon, or cook dinner and do the dishes. This is your life, one moment at a time – don’t wait until the dishes are done to be satisfied. There will always be more desire to do things and more chores waiting when one is completed, so enjoy every moment. Life and co-creation can be like reading a good book or watching a great movie – you don’t want it to end, so you savor every minute of it.

This is different than the common adage “live for today,” which often means “do something out of the ordinary”. A little spontaneity can be useful, but the common message behind “live for today,” or the Nike slogan “Just Do It” is that we need to buy something or do something extravagant in order to live our dreams and be happy. If we truly value the process of living, we don’t need to do anything impulsive to break the chains of our daily suffering, because we enjoy our daily life and aren’t in a hurry to escape it in favor of some kind of imagined future bliss.

The most important thing in life is what we learn and enjoy along the way, not what we get done. Although we do sometimes need to complete things, our quality of life correlates directly with our enjoyment of the moment/process. Our most valuable asset is the ability to enjoy the process of living.
Happiness = “happen”-ness: our appreciation of the present moment

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