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The Seductive Power of Doing

Does all of our doing need to be done?

Key points

  • Our tendency to overdo stems from our innate desire to do good in the world.
  • We are infinite souls housed in limited bodies living in a limited world. The tension between those two truths is something we live each day.
  • Trying to achieve balance between doing and being is a goal we always strive for but never quite reach.
Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“I don’t enjoy my life but I get a lot done,” a client said to me recently. He was aware of the irony in his statement, but he seemed powerless to do anything about it. A furious overdoer, his ability to get things done had become a kind of voracious, wild animal, devouring any other area of his life that didn’t involve doing: reading, resting, looking at the clouds, chatting with friends.

So much of our lives feels dictated by outside circumstances. We commit ourselves to things, whether it’s studying for an advanced degree, taking our kids to ballet or soccer practice, or helping our neighbor move. Then we have to live with the consequences of those decisions. We feel the stress of trying to squeeze in one more thing, the difficulty being present to the things we at one time decided we wanted to do, the ambivalence we experience at the finish line of whatever project we initiated or agreed to be responsible for. We need to ask ourselves the very simple, but important question: “Does all this doing need to be done?”

Most of us struggle with a pervasive sense that we are not quite in balance. We fantasize about an imagined future, whether that be retirement, vacation, or when the kids are older, when we will be in better balance. Like chasing a rainbow, we never seem to arrive at this tantalizing goal of perfect balance. At least not for anything but a few very brief moments.

There are a ton of self-help books that will suggest ways to live your life in greater balance, taking more enjoyment in the moment-to-moment of your life, helping you to focus more on the process and less on the product. I have nothing against these books, but at some level, I don’t think they go far enough because I don’t think they sufficiently acknowledge the source of this struggle. What makes us push against our limits so much? Why do we constantly bite off more than we can chew and then feel stressed by our decisions? While there are many material reasons for this, like the imagined lives our friends are living on Instagram or the very real and unavoidably hard work of raising a family, I think the answer lies deeper still.

I find the source of this struggle best described in a distinctive Jewish psychology, written not by Freud, Adler, Fromm, Maslow, or any of the Jewish psychological giants. I mean instead, a type of psychology that is outlined by Jewish rabbis and mystics. This psychology posits that we are infinite souls housed in limited bodies living in a world that is by definition limited. That for there to be such a thing as a world, or a book, or a table, or the computer or phone you’re reading this on, God’s infinite light had to be limited in some way in order to be contained in a vessel. So no matter what we do, no matter who we are, we will always feel ourselves falling short of what we imagine we are capable of. This is the nature of our reality: we intuit infinity but experience the pain of constantly falling short of it. This dualism is intrinsic to our very nature.

According to this same Jewish worldview, in each of us this infinite soul has come down into this limited body to bring good into the world. We are pure, loving souls who want to do good. That desire to do good may get distorted in lots of ways, either by how we’re brought up or by how the society around us receives our light. But the basic goodness is there, and ultimately therapy is about reconnecting us to this place of our basic goodness and our desire to do good in the world.

What I love, and sometimes struggle with in religious thought, is that its axioms are ontological. That is, there is no shirking the truth of them, no hedging our bets by saying, “well, sometimes there are exceptions.” There are no exceptions in these thoughts: each and every one of us is a part of this larger infinite light and our job is to bring as much of that light, in our own unique way, into the world as is humanly possible. Ultimately this is why we bite off more than we can chew, not because we are neurotic but because at our core we are infinite beings trying to express that infinity in a limited world, with our limited bodies and our limited energy.

To come back to my client who lamented he doesn’t enjoy his life but gets a lot done, I think the work is to help him reconnect to his basic goodness, his desire to give of himself to the world. If he can experience the truth of that truth, then he will no longer feel he needs to "do" in order to prove he’s worthy of love, but that he needs to do because he is love. That shift alone will change his life completely, allowing him to express that love with greater balance, because it will include both love of himself and love of the world.

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