Doing The Work

To get a thing accomplished, you show up and do the work. That’s all you can do, really. Other things that aren’t “the work” don’t get the thing accomplished. And what happens as a result of your trying to do “the work”: that’s also not really your choice.

You just show up and do “the work”.

Byron Katie, though I’m only faintly acquainted with her, seems to be the source of “the work” as a unit of thought for me. For her, “The Work” means:

The Work is a simple yet powerful process of inquiry that teaches you to identify and question the thoughts that cause all the suffering in the world. It’s a way to understand what’s hurting you, and to address the cause of your problems with clarity.

I don’t specifically mean that, but I do think she’s onto something substantial. The insubstantiality of thoughts — which is one of the core messages of Katie’s efforts — is something I recently wrote about.

But whatever you count “the work” as — learning to love, building the cathedral, destroying the system you abhor — you’ve got to do it. Even when you don’t really feel like it. Even when you’d really rather just… not.

You’ve got to show up and do the work. The rest is out of your hands.


It’s Just About Time and Attention

It seems that we only have control over two things in our life: the hours allotted to us, and the things we put our attention on in those hours. But that’s a fact that’s easy to miss.

We worry about how pretty we are. About how smart we are. About how kind we are. About what people think of us. And what we’re worth. But none of those things change the heart fact that we’ve only got control over our time and attention.

We can spend time and attention to get smarter. We can spend time and attention to work on being more kind, or fit, or to have a bigger bank account. We can spend it being entertained by the latest novels or the dumbest television. But fundamentally what we’re doing here is taking the time we’re given and spending it on the things we give our attention to.

Want to be more productive? Think seriously about where you’re actually putting your time and attention and where you’d feel most productive putting your time and attention. It seems almost comical in its simplicity, but that’s really all that productivity comes down to.

The heart of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, for example, is a study of why people are really bad about managing their time and attention and spend it in all the wrong places. When we’re not strategic, we can easily drain of our time and attention rehashing the same decisions over and over again rather than acting. Or when we make ourselves remember tasks to do, we waste energy (which is essentially the compound form of time and attention) on the act of remembering.

I’m ever more certain that all things that matter in life are stupidly simple. But that simple doesn’t mean easy. And the fact that productivity comes down to the decisions and stratagems that we use to decide how and where to use our energy seems to fit. You don’t get to make more time, and you may sometimes find it hard to control your attention. But realize that those two things are just about the only variables you really control and you’ll find yourself ahead of the game.


Loving the Mystery

There’s a lyric that’s been trapped in my head for nearly a decade. It’s from the song “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” by Neutral Milk Hotel. The lyric is this: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” It’s the last line in the song.

The reason it’s stuck in my head didn’t have a lot to do with the song, really. The first fifty times I heard the song I didn’t pay much attention to its specifics, just that line. The line resonated with me because it so clearly states a deep truth: it’s really “strange to be anything at all.”

We take it for granted most of the time, but it’s the central unanswerable question of our existence. We exist, we know that. So clearly we’re a thing. A thing with the capability to think of itself as a thing.

But we can’t, as people, all agree on from whence we’ve come and to where we’re going.

Some of us — me included — think we came from a process which spans billions of years and a universe so vast we hardly have the ability to understand its size. Some of us think that the story of the Bible: it all started six thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden when God created the first people, Adam and Eve. Many doubtless know or believe in creation stories I’ve never been exposed to, never mind have the ability to summarize in a sentence.

Some of us think we die and get buried in the ground, where we decay and live no more. Some think that we separate from that body that’s buried and ascend to a place to be judged and separated. Some think that we return to this planet, to become a person, or whale, or dear, or fly.

All of these are attempts to answer this unmistakable feeling: it’s so strange to find ourselves here. As anything. At all. For some people the feeling of that strangeness — I’d describe it as having a vibrating warmth — is called “God’s love.” For others, it’s called “the mystery.” For others still it goes unnamed. Some call it “Allah.” Some think it can not be named. And some people have never experienced it at all.

However it works for you, you’ve got to think about it from time to time. I find it’s energy-giving, and an inspiration to try harder to be better. To be kinder. To be smarter. To be more me. To get all I can out of this strange existence. It is indeed “strange to be anything at all.” It is also fantastic.


Fossil Fuels are Dangerous

I thought of writing this piece a number of times, but always decided against it. It always did, and still does, seem like an interesting idea that would never get much traction. But, I rather like sharing outlandish ideas (see last Thursday), so I’ve decided to give this one a go.


I think the claim can be made that fossil fuels are killing people. And no, this isn’t about global warming. This is about the lives of coal miners. This summer, few Americans missed the nine deaths that came at a Utah coal mine. The first collapse trapped and killed six Utah coal miners. The second collapse killed three more in a fatal rescue attempt.

And even if those nine are the only casualties of American coal mines this year, that’s a pretty dangerous line of work. Certainly more dangerous than most of the things better-paid Americans do daily.

We should also notice that America’s coal mines, which sadly seem to always claim at least a few workers a year, are a great deal safer than others around the globe. The most visible example of this is China, where mining deaths are regularly above 4000 annually. This is a testament to both the fact that China has more coal mines, and that they worry less about workplace safety.

Coal Miner

In 2004, a particularly bad year for China, there were 6,027 deaths in their coal mines. The United States only lost 28 miners. And though this country could spend time rejoicing at that disparity, we can’t overlook the tragedy of 28 Americans dying so that the rest of us could watch television, use our iPods, and read late into the night.

Surely these deaths aren’t a great problem for the coal companies. They continue to operate questionably safe underground mines, hoping that they’ll continue to be profitable in what they hope is a growing market for coal. Indeed, in both America and the world, demand for the cheap and plentiful energy provided by coal seems not to have subsided.

And surely there are safer ways to get coal. Open pit mines, where the earth is removed from the top of the coal seams, are safer for workers. That does, however, ignore the significant eyesore that such mines can become.

It should also be noted that coal is the most dangerous of fossil fuels. Many fewer die harvesting oil or natural gas than coal. But we also can’t overlook the fact, in light of these figures, that even nuclear–the ugly stepchild of the energy sector–is a rather safe technology.

As The Economist recently pointed out, “the UN figure of around 4,000 eventual deaths as a result of the Chernobyl accident is lower than the official annual death-rate in Chinese coal mines.” A grim comparison no doubt, but one that can’t easily be ignored.

Is concern for the safety of coal miners going to drive the world away from using the sometimes-dangerous fossil fuel? History points toward no. But, there is a real possibility that safety concerns can serve as another argument in favor of renewable energies or even nuclear power.

The public at large seems turned off by constant appeals about global warming. The conversions are becoming fewer and fewer as the willing have joined up and the doubtful have become more obstinate.

Safety of American citizens will not push hundreds or even the needed millions to ask for more renewable or lower-carbon energy sources. But there is a possibility that it can make people think a little harder about how they’re using energy and where that energy is coming from.