The routines of daily life, the things we are required to do day in and day out, are the activities that determine the quality and meaning of our lives. Our daily habits are actually the best gauge of who we are as individuals and as a culture – the mundane tasks of life: eating, sleeping, working, housekeeping, our choices for pleasure and how we entertain ourselves; these are the things that make up the fabric of our lives.
But we live in a culture that loves reaching the summit without the climb, pushing tedious chores to the sidelines – as if life could be glorious peak experiences all the time and by some magic formula we could all become rich and thin and accomplished without any work at all. But I would argue that it is exactly the daily endeavors that give life meaning, perhaps not immediately, but ultimately. Reaching the pinnacle of the mountain by long, arduous ascent on foot holds a far different satisfaction than arriving by ski lift. We have become accustomed to all sorts of modern conveniences that short cut our tasks but that also divorce us from a certain kind of real experience.
One hundred years ago our relationship with daily life was much different. The getting of food, water and medicine – the tending of birth, death and illness were issues much more central to day to day living. Now we hire people to attend our births, cart our garbage, supply our food and water, and take care of our health. But by our ignorance and non-attention to these matters as individuals, a whole toxic system has been set in place to handle it all for us. And it doesn’t handle it – not really. For instance, we can buy fresh water in a bottle at a store and at the same time be unaware that over a million empty plastic bottles are thrown into the garbage every hour and that they make their way to the sea – so that now there are whole islands made up of plastic garbage of every kind floating on the surface of the water, interfering with life below. The buying of water goes on because our daily habits are entrenched. If we are thirsty, it is too much to have to think about the ocean so far away, and the garbage which we cannot believe could be that bad or we would hear more about it.
We know that addictions and redundant bad habits are insidious, working at a slow and incremental pace to color the tone of our day to day reality. But the same is true of positive habits – things that we do regularly, again and again, daily, hourly – the things that are unglamorous or repetitious (doing the dishes, folding the laundry, shopping for groceries). They add bit by bit to the flavor of living – the sweetness or lack of sweetness that we experience. How we feed ourselves, how we get from place to place, how we relate to the place that we live – not only affect us personally but also contribute to the state of our world. Our separate individual daily decisions and concerns do matter. It matters whether or not we compost and recycle our garbage, whether or not we eat organic foods, whether we use or avoid toxic chemicals in our home and workplace, what we spend our money on and how we care for our bodies. It matters how much toxicity we leave in our wake. How much poison is justified if it means leaving pollution for generations to come?
Much of what most of us are busy doing every day has little to do with the natural world at all anymore. People ‘connect’ by sitting in separate locations staring into a computer screen. No one knows where the water from the faucet originates. Instead of looking at the sky we turn on the television to find out about the weather. Modern conveniences have arguably left us much less self-sufficient than ever before in the history of humanity.
Setting up new rhythms and patterns in our habits can add steadiness in an otherwise chaotic time. We will not change the condition of our world through global planning only, but also through our daily individual choices, those things we turn to morning, noon and night. Individual choices to trust nature, to trust ourselves, to say yes to life, living as if our choices to live peacefully actually do help to maintain some peace in the world. It is the small changes, the basic, simple things that bring us incrementally forward on our path towards wholeness.