Tuesday, October 16, 2007
The chore of thinking
Cleaning my cat’s litterbox is a chore. It is to be done regularly, whether or not I have other prefered ways to spend my time. However helpful it is to my cat for me to provide this momentary bit of service, this assistance does nothing to reduce the disagreeableness I find in the task at hand. Cleaning the cat’s litterbox is an act I sometimes turn to with anger in my voice and vulgarity on my lips, because of the degree of its unpleasantness, especially if I let myself fall behind in my self-appointed routine. Yet it is a chore I pursue with accursed regularity… for my cat’s sake, more than my own.
Does a chore ever get accomplished without an accompanying mental picture of someone other than oneself? The self-discipline to persevere through difficult or unwelcome challenges is best grown through focusing on the others besides ourselves who are destined to reap the benefit of our sacrificial efforts on their behalf.
If we live only for ourselves, and think of only our own needs and pleasures, what surer recipe could there be for leaving chores unfulfilled..?
It requires no effort, surely, to summon ideas of what we’d prefer to be doing, to whimsically drift from one spontaneous desire to another. What’s difficult is to stretch the mind to also include room for others, and to factor their desires alongside ours. Not making room for new only by eliminating old, but by straining to find the way to include some of each.
What happens to my cat if I leave for work without bothering to clean the litterbox from it’s, er, use, the night before? Easy for me to justify forsaking a chore by claiming her feline majesty capable of summoning the resolve to “deal with it”; yet why not simply be of service, if service is possible, by shouldering what for me would be a small moment of self-denial, in favor of allowing her a moment of later dignity?
Making room in our mind for the thoughts of others besides our own is an exercise that owning pets allows us to practice. Giving kids pets is a fine way to teach them responsibilities, that is, giving the child an opportunity to learn how to live their life as a response to the life of another.
Measuring our choice of responses involves the hardest chore of them all: thinking. Not a pleasant act to a creature such as man, geared by survival instinct to value spontaneity. It’s so much easier to just live for the moment, to forsake any mental exercise spent conjuring up moments likely to come in the future. Who knows if they’ll even be a future?? Living without regard for the future is to very much live without regard for others, for by living for only the moment, living for a single idea rather than through a chain of thoughts, how can we build ourselves as agents of service?
By constructing alliances such as Covenants, the beast of man tames his natural instinct to limit his mind only to thoughts limited to himself. Covenants offer the needed training to stretch the mind to make room for the possible thoughts of others, by making it as hard as possible to ignore the existence of these others as they share our lives. When we walk hand in hand with another, we must pause to consider what response they will have to actions undertaken by us, and balance that response with our own. Finding a golden mean between what we desire, and what others may need, is the process of thinking so necessary in living a life worth living, a life of meaning. An ennobled life.
It is not fun to temper instinct, to weigh a spontaneous action on a scale conjured up only through unnatural effort. It is a chore to be civilized, to balance the things that could be done against the things which should be done. The unpleasantness associated with that self-denial is made easier to accept by focusing our minds on the responding thoughts of others, by imagining ourselves in their situation, and tying their response to our own. I might summon fantasies to turn my mind against the chore of thinking about that damn litterbox, easily excusing even the most momentary lapse of exercising my duty. It’s the connection I feel with my cat that weakens my resistance to my chore, my learned ability to put myself in her paws that breaks my resistance to being of service to her, each and every time.
If we can summon a thoughtful connection to serve a simple housecat, we can surely broaden our scope to include connections to the lives of fellow human beings. Whether through the Covenant of Marriage, Family, Team, or Nation, we need to learn the value within the act of reaching out to add others’ lives to our own, for the help it provides us in becoming better versions of ourselves. We learn to serve others, to better serve ourselves, and teach ourselves how to rise above the condition of animals.
Such service begins with the unnatural chore of thinking: conjuring up a future and connecting it to the present, imagining the thoughts of others within our Covenant, and summoning the resolve to act responsibly towards them. For the true leader is he who is of the most service, to others, and therefrom to himself.