Where did my tendency to hustle and strive and work all the time come from?
Why am I almost always planning and worrying about the future? Why can’t I rest more often? Why am I afraid to fully let go and relax? Why am I constantly standing on the balls of my feet, leaning headfirst into the future?
Is it because (as I write about in How to Get Out of Your Head) I got the message early in life that my parents and teachers expected me to do well in school?
Or because our capitalist society worships hard work and shames rest as laziness (unless you’re rich)?
Or because my dad grew up in a working class family and worked over 30 years for the same company?
Or because my mom comes from a long line of self-sufficient farmers?
Or because some of my ancestors were self-sufficient Appalachians who survived in the hollers of West Virginia?
Or because others were run off their land in southwestern Germany and all but forced to come to the American colonies as indentured servants?
Or because those ancestors were Lutherans, followers of Martin Luther, who professed that work was a calling from God?
Peel back the layers deep enough and there’s no one singular answer. “All lives are lived in the swirls and eddies of what has gone along before them,” writes the spiritual teacher and writer Stephen Jenkinson.
One thing’s for sure: I’m definitely not choosing to work all the time. It’s in my bones just as much as it’s in our culture. Every morning, a speaker blares in my mind: “Get to work! Do something! Anything!” At night before bed, it whispers “Did you get enough done?”
In fact, it’s in my DNA. Biologists studying epigenetics—how genes are expressed—have found that a person’s individual experience appears to alter the cells and behavior of their children and grandchildren.
Centuries of rushing to get seeds in the ground, to cut enough wood for winter, to clock in at work. I’ve inherited generations of capitalist ways of being. White supremacist culture too, as a student reminded me in a recent class.
But what if I do have a choice? What if it’s up to me to aim my striving towards serving others, rather than just myself? What if it’s up to me to remember that we’re all connected, even the dead?
The thought of living that way gives me chills. It’d be turning against the stream of our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal society. It’d be turning against the stream of centuries, if not millennia.
Here’s what I’m up against: My self-worth is so tied to individual success that part of me blames others for their suffering. That person living on the street must not have worked hard enough. That single mother struggling to pay the bills just shouldn’t have had children. That alcoholic just needs to have some personal responsibility.
But what if there was another way? What if I could remember that we’re all doing our best? What if I could remember that my rushing and striving, my leaning into the future and missing the present moment, is only adding to the crazed, speedy mindlessness of our age? What if I could remember to slow down?
As Jenkinson asks, “When was the last time you stood anywhere for a moment and saw that what you meant and felt and how you loved and lost and what you said and held off saying might already have become waves lapping somewhere else, washing upon a shore you’ve already passed by, where someone is standing?”
Answering that question by living in the moment, connected to all that has come before and will come after, would seem to me to be the good life.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful in your life, reach out.
Download my free ebook on starting and sticking with a meditation practice here.