Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mythical Land of "Done"

A while back I wrote a post entitled The Art of Doing Less. Some of the comments on that post got me thinking that perhaps I had given it the wrong title, and really it should have been called "The Art of Getting Less Done". This post is the result of all that rattling around in my brain.

There used to be a commercial for some sort of dish washing detergent that went something like this:
As a woman is putting away the last dish, a voice says "You know that feeling when the dishes are finally done..." Then we cut to a dream scene where blissful music is playing and the woman is jumping for joy in a rapturous frenzy exclaiming, "Free! Free! I'm Free!!!!" Just then the music comes to a screeching halt and she is jolted back to reality as a kid hands her another dirty plate. "OK, well.... kinda free." she says with a shrug.

It's sooooo true, isn't it? Sometimes I feel like that commercial is a metaphor for my entire life.

We live in a society that puts an inordinate weight on the idea of "getting things done." We want to be finished, to cross things off of our "to-do" lists, to have a string of accomplishments that we can claim. It's like our value as human beings is measured in achievements achieved, feats finished and deeds done.

But when you really stop and think about it, where is this mythical land of "Done?" I think that on some level we all carry around in our heads some sort of crazy idea that a time will come when we'll be all finished, and then we can spend the rest of our lives sitting around in lavish tubs drinking champagne and eating bon bons.

But the truth is there will always be one more dish to clean, one more meal to cook, one more garden to weed, clothes to mend, furniture to dust, and on and on and on.

So we're caught in a trap. Because at the same time that we're all running hither an yon in a doomed quest for El Dorado, or Excalibur, or Happily Ever After (pick your metaphor) our society teaches us to abhor the actual doing of anything!

I mean, think about it. We're constantly bombarded with messages that say "Buy our product so you can get quickly past the horrible doing of XYZ, and get on to the meaningful part of being done." We don't go to school to engulf ourselves in the experience of learning, we do it to "get a degree." We buy pre-packaged food so we can skip arduous step of cooking. We study "time management" and "productivity" and we all become experts at "multitasking" so we can quick hurry and cross more things off of our lists. We surround ourselves with lawnmowers and weed whackers and automobiles and countless home appliances all in a doomed effort to get us to some destination quicker, easier or somehow better.

But where does it all leave us? In my opinion it leaves us empty. On some level we expect the everything should be accomplished now (or preferably yesterday), so we feel like failures before we even begin. We run ever faster, and it seems like there is just never enough time. But in our frenzy to get everything done, it seems we have forgotten that our life is really comprised of the doing.

The Buddhists have a saying that goes something like this:
Before enlightenment: haul water, chop wood. After enlightenment: haul water, chop wood.
Now I would never hold myself up as a paragon of Buddhist thought or mindful living. God knows I struggle with the hurry monster and the desire to "accomplish". But the more I can slow myself down, the more I really experience my life. And the more I do that, the more joyful I become. Doing the dishes is actually quite enjoyable when you're really experiencing the doing of it rather than standing behind yourself with a whip trying to make yourself do it faster.

You see, our life's work will never be finished until our lives are over. The land of "done" is really the land of "dead". And if your whole life is spent trying to get somewhere, you're missing the boat, because there is nowhere to get... life is about experiencing what you are doing right here, right now, because that's the only thing that is truly real.

I'll be reminding myself of this next time I'm faced with a kitchen overflowing with dirty dishes...


  1. Great article and good reminder.

    I find I'm much more able to appreciate what I'm doing if it's something I've decided to do on my own schedule and I'm in the mood to do it. Even cleaning (but notice I said I have to be in the mood...). Unfortunately those two stars don't align often. *sigh*

  2. LOVE this paragraph! I'm there with you...reminding myself. And loving it when the reminders work.

    "You see, our life's work will never be finished until our lives are over. The land of "done" is really the land of "dead". And if your whole life is spent trying to get somewhere, you're missing the boat, because there is nowhere to get... life is about experiencing what you are doing right here, right now, because that's the only thing that is truly real."

  3. I'm with Steph--love that paragraph. I yanked a quote from "The Good Life" that I wish I had with me right now. Basically, the same sentiment--life happens in the journey, not at the destination.

    I love that Buddhist saying (I learned it a wee bit differently, but it's the same thing). I have to remind myself constantly that self-care, in all its glorious forms, is a gift, not a chore, and it forever remains.

  4. Brilliant and refreshing! Just what I needed to read today and I posted a link to your post on Twitter because I adore the Buddhist quotation! Nothing's ever done: be here now.

  5. This is a wonderful post. I'm so with you on this - most people spend their lives running a race to "doneness" and never get there. Worse still, they don't enjoy anything. I've noticed that my 13 year old son when asked to do a big pile of dishes will actually fill the sink and handwash them instead of loading the dishwasher, and I can't help but think "you're on the right track, sweetheart".

  6. Ohhhh! I love this post! Lately I have been leaving the 'chores' so that I can do things that I would rather be doing... reading a book, watching a movie/snuggling with my son, going outside. The result? AWESOME! Maybe my house isn't 'perfectly tidy' but really? Who cares! So, there are a few dishes next to the sink and a pile of laundry on the floor... the important thing is that I have really enjoyed the day! Thanks for the reminder and the reassurance that I am not the only one out there! xoxo

  7. Well, after a career of essentially being an adrenaline junky, with time measured by the second, I have slowed to a crawl. Sometimes I miss the second by second, life and death challenges, but generally, it's great to be able to slow down, to "smell the roses". There's a time and place for everything (had a 4 hour delayed flight last week, but just enjoyed the extra time with my companions- no point to anger). Having the perspective to know the difference is great.
    The tedium of housekeeping gets old, but the WHY doesn't. Making life a bit better for those around me, in even the smallest, least appreciated of ways is satisfying and will never grow old, and the challenge of mindfulness is never ending, and can be a part of anything one does...
    Thought provoking. Thanks!

  8. Thanks so much for all of your nice comments. Sorry I haven't been responding, I've been very busy getting absolutely nothing done! :~)

  9. Another excellent post! I've sent the past year or so doing my best to live IN each moment, with my husband, my children, my friends, my life in general. It has made a huge difference for all of us. LIFE is the point, not getting to the next big thing. I just wish more people understood that.

  10. I love this but I would like to know how you do this life - does your husband work or are you somehow independently wealthy and retired early? The reason I'm asking is that most of the women I know who are able to enjoy simple living have a working spouse, so while they enjoy time with family and kids, the husband doesn't have that time for his well-being. I'm new to your blog so forgive me if you answered this before.

  11. Hi OilAndGarlic - Well... actually I don't have anyone to support me. CatMan and I (my partner of 17 years) decided long ago (for a long series of complicated reasons) that we didn't want to live together. He supports me in inumerous ways, but not financially. I also don't have a trust fund or some other source of wealth.

    I'll probably write some posts with more details at some point, but basically I live on the cheap (like under $20K annually). I do some consulting work and I have several internet businesses which do require time, but not very much, and it's usually the kind of work that I can choose to do whenever I want with no particular deadline. Plus it's all creative stuff that I totally enjoy and don't really consider to be work.

    All that being said, I believe that "busy" is really a state of mind more than anything else, and focusing on hurrying and getting more done, doesn't really accomplish any more than you would if you were being present and enjoying what you were doing. I firmly believe that we in this society use our constant state of rush as a way to avoid what we really don't want to face, namely our emotions.

  12. oilandgarlic - I'm one who stays home and enjoys a simple life. However, I have to consciously make that choice.

    Once I was so wrapped up in all of my volunteer projects, I truly didn't have any time for my family. When I worked fulltime my life was actually easier.

    Today, because I stay at home and do everything possible around the house, my husband gets to enjoy his free time with his family.

    I just found your blog ecocatlady - thanks for thought provoking posts!!!

  13. I love this post and it is a fantastic reminder. For me achieving SOMETHING each day, ticking something off a list makes me feel like I haven't wasted precious time. I don't pressure myself often but I really love the feeling of sitting down at night and reflecting on everything I managed to get done.
    That though is working to my desires I suppose and not those of society - and the things I get done are cleaning out rat cages, making bread, cleaning the bathroom, knitting a bit..what a good life!

    1. I'm sort of laughing to myself on re-reading this post... since I am now the proud owner of a brand spanking new dishwasher which I totally LOVE because it means I don't have to do the dishes any more!

      But since I've been battling weeds in the garden all week it is a good reminder that the job will never, ever be "done!"


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