More than Blind Existence
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2017
Life can be lived in blindness, missing the richness of existence and forced into a blind march through the nothingness.
The other day, I spotted a trail of ants, crossing my patio, and disappearing into the planter. I watched these little creatures cross my yard, not organized, occasionally colliding, but moving with purpose. The little creatures, biologically programmed, marched on a mission of survival, securing food. No cognitive thought, no conscious goal, no struggles with laziness, or dissatisfaction with bosses—they just marched.
As humans, we operate differently. We have cognitive powers. We think; we create complex plans and address complex problems. Cognition, essential to manage complexity, is a mixed blessing. Cognitions create meaning. Dancing thoughts demand a reason—a meaning to their madness; we must know why. Yet lost in the sea of reasons, we settle for simplicity, ignoring the complexity of intertwining causes behind actions.
We get lost in the competitive race to get more; we get up early and work late. But are dumbfounded when others inquire the reasons we need more. For nearly two decades, I commuted on sixty miles of crowded freeways. The term “rat race” aptly describes the thousands of motorists jarring for position, weaving through traffic, to save a few seconds from their commutes.
We blindly march back and forth in habitual routines seemingly content to let unknown factors determine the outcomes of our lives. In childhood, a bright son curiously asked endless me streams of questions. He would string together a chain of questions digging deeper and deeper into meaning. His young mind was curious. Why are we getting into the car? Why are we going to the store? Why do we eat? On and on, the rapid-fire questions would come. One day, short on patience, I snapped, commenting, “Aren’t you a little question man.” A short pause followed and then, “What’s a question man?” We could use more question men and women.
Our daily routines are full of automated actions, freeing cognitive energy. We don’t need to waste time pondering the biomechanics of digestion, nutrients, and energy when we go to the store for milk and eggs. We notice the eggs are gone and the milk empty; without thought, we grab the keys and go. Our conscious mind has limited capacity. Habits, thinking heuristics, and biases assist in filling the voids. Attention focuses on threats without conscious directions; but when the action lulls and life slows down, the wise return to the event to gather understanding. Other times, comfort permeates our days, no eminent threats of the horizon to draw attention, during the calmness our minds may wander—to the unproductive fields where futures are destroyed, and dreams are smashed.
"When the action lulls and life slows down, the wise return to the event to gather understanding."
We must examine habitual behaviors, devoid of thought, for balance. Unmonitored action may destroy careers, families, intimacy, and dreams. The actions may not appear disastrous—even appearing mundane. But the small, simple behaviors accumulate and powerfully impact our lives. Examining the little reactions and every day habits, we wisely interrupt destructive paths, and seek better avenues to add meaning and richness to life.
At first, recognizing blindly followed routines may shock the examiner. From new macro-perspectives, we painfully notice monotony. Waking to the morning alarm, driving to work, getting paid, and doing chores on the weekend. Life has become a routine, missing the richness of experience. Millions joining in the monotony of survival, driving varying distances just to turn around and drive home at the end of the day—cogs in the wheel of massive profit and loss machines. In many ways, we resemble the ants in the garden.
Conversely, many abandon the structured walls of habitual and structured behaviors only to be destroyed by chaos—some structure is essential.
If we look a little deeper, past the habitual patterns, we might discover meaning, uncovering the richness of human cognition. Inhabiting each car on the crowded roadway is a person; each possessing their own collection of joys and sorrows. When traffic slows, I occasionally glance into the private chambers of others’ worlds—the solitary cabins of their cars. The morose expressions, the joyous laughs each tell deeper stories.
We are constantly surrounded by the complex lives of others. Behind outer expressions are layers of untold stories—peace, happiness, sadness, anger, bitterness, loneliness, heartbreak, concern, compassion. Some are battling debilitating diseases, others absorbed in an abusive relationship; many basking in joys of a recent success, while others recovering from devastating failures. Look around, open your eyes, we are surrounded; Ordinary people fighting addictions. The waves of emotions—joys and sorrows—flow through the everyday lives of our fellow travelers. Do you see them? Feel their aliveness? We are not alone in struggles or in triumphs. Billions of people each struggling, enjoying, and making their way through life the best they know how.
Take time during your survival march, peer through your daily routines to see a little more, examining the richness of life surrounding us. A few mindful observations build stronger connections to the community, lifting noxious judgments. By knowing others experience pain, joy, sorrow and anger we feel less alone and more connected. These expanding connections—beyond our immediate circle—transform our experience of living. Not just blindly marching but actively living.