I remember during the last presidential elections, I would follow the daily news with great fervor hoping for a Democratic victory. It was not unusual for me to spend a few hours every night glued to the screen tracking the election progress and learning from the expert analysis and reportage about a subject (politics) I knew little about. What I failed to realize at the time, no matter the outcome of the elections, there was no point for me in keeping up with the news and perhaps, I was better off using that time in doing something more useful instead. The reasoning was the outcome of elections wasn’t dependent on us or others, and whatever was bound to happen would happen regardless of whether we kept ourselves informed or not.
Here’s the thing. We are in many ways obsessed with knowing what’s happening in the outer world. We watch news every day. We read papers first thing in the morning. I wrote in the last piece how we use our most creative time of the day consuming other people’s thoughts when that time would be better off spending in solitude to recharge ourselves. For instance, I know many of my friends whose days begin with reading the morning papers and incomplete without it. As for me, I haven’t read them in years nor have I had cable TV (for many reasons), but that’s another thread. Let’s acknowledge that keeping up with the daily news adds no real value to our lives in the long run.
It’s also easy to get caught in the daily feeds of social media because we are programmed by them to crave dopamine throughout our waking day, lest we use them mindfully. We have become so used to fragmenting our attention through the various feeds that we have forgotten what it’s like to give our attention and do one thing at a time without feeling distracted or being interrupted. And because we do this all the time, we are like the fish in the water that we don’t even know we are in it.
We are obsessed with wanting to know what’s going on in the outer world, but here’s the thing. Events in the world are going to happen and affect us one way or another regardless of whether we know about them. When something is truly worth knowing, we’ll find about it sooner or later from our social network without having to seek it out. We seldom have any influence over it, so why concern ourselves with the affairs of the world? Why not instead use that attention mindfully with something that matters to us? We can all be more discerning as to how we use our attention.
It’s worth noting that we tend to tie our personal moods to the conditions of the world, which doesn’t help our cause. Rather, we would be better served by tending to our garden and focusing on making progress in our daily lives and serving those around us.
Tending your garden comes from the book, Candide written by Voltaire. He wrote:
We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest.
What does it mean to tend your garden? It means minding your own business. It involves keeping distance with the world and managing your own affairs by doing a few things better, to remind ourselves to focus on the important and non-urgent, and to not get caught up in all the present-day news and “big idea” books predicting the future. To avoid getting caught in the daily minutiae of life and focus on what you can do. To avoid taking a close interest in politics and opinion for your own sanity and well-being. To keep yourself occupied with something meaningful like writing a book, managing a small business, taking care of one’s house, etc. To live each day knowing we did our best. Tending your garden reminds me of a quote from Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text:
The sage does not occupy himself with the affairs of the world.
We need to stop worrying about the future, so we can be at peace with the world. There is nothing you or I will do that is going to alter the course of humanity. Using the examples shared above, we can tend our little plot and focus on that. We can work on projects that matter to us, which not only fulfills us, but leaves us weary each night, so we can sleep well knowing we did our best that day.
True happiness is when we stop resisting situations in our lives and start accepting them as they are. We can settle down, live peacefully with others, and make things that add value to others. We stop taking life too seriously. We find humor in (almost) everything. We stop concerning ourselves with the world (and our neighbors). When we tend our garden, we shield ourselves from the world by engaging in meaningful ways that matter to us and to those around us.