Enthusiasm. What is it? That’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer. For what it is now is not what it used to be. It used to be, way way back, entheos– which is ancient greek for god-within. In other words: to be possessed, to have a god acting through you. That to me far exceeds the current definition of ‘enthusiasm’ as being eager or happy. In fact, it is my contention that to be enthused, in the old sense, is the exact opposite of the new sense. Imagine yourself doing the dishes, you have completely forgot what you were doing, yet you’re still doing the dishes, perfectly. Or are you? Is something else working through you?
You see, “what is it?” is far too general a question to get us anywhere useful. Let’s ask instead, “when is enthusiasm?” It’s hard for me to think of myself as having enthusiasm while asleep. Even the best dreams sort of happen without any sense of enthusiasm. Even when I wake up, I’m not exactly enthused. Maybe I am if I know there’s something good going on that day. And maybe I should be enthused every morning for the sole fact that I am alive, that every day is good. Yeah, that’s a good attitude- now I feel enthused. But then I go to work and I lose my enthusiasm.
But why? Why does going to work mean I can’t be enthusiastic? This is an important question for all of us (and for those of you who are retired, students, or in transition, you can substitute ‘work’ with whatever you spend a third of your day doing). Let’s state the question: am I enthusiastic about what I have to do today?
That depends on which sense of the word ‘enthusiasm’ we’re using. For example. Part of my job is unplugging the toilet. Now, it’s next to impossible to actually be excited about fixing the toilet, to be eager to have the chance to unclog a public toilet (enthusiasm in the modern sense). It is possible, on the other hand, to evoke the name of my god, view cleaning the toilet as a spiritual exercise (an opportunity to practice humility) and proceed entirely enthusiastic about the ordeal. Possessed by God, fixing a toilet. God’s fixing the toilet; I’m only a vessel.
What this illustrates is that no task is inherently bad; what matters is your attitude. So we can rephrase the question: am I enthusiastic about today, regardless of what I have to do? Probably not. Because we’re human. And some work really sucks, despite our spiritual conditioning. A better question: how can we become enthusiastic?
The first and most obvious answer is to have a positive attitute. That gets us somewhere but not all the way. For one, some of us have a dour aesthetic and appreciate the fact that the glass is half empty, too. Secondly, saying to yourself “I should be positive” is rather hollow- it doesn’t actually make you feel positive. If anything it makes you feel guilty for not being positive. Does it? I don’t know. From my experience, being positive is a good first step, but eventually I’m going to need something more convincing to make me believe I should be enthusiastic.
Another attempt: enthusiasm makes me feel better. That’s right, when I actually care about what I’m doing, I feel better while I do it. It’s called taking pride in your work. Other people benefit, because you do a good job. But the important part is you benefit, because you’re not divided in two, one half trying to do the work/one half complaining about the work being done.
But sometimes that strategy doesn’t work either. Because no matter how good your attitude is you feel like shit. Better yet, you feel like shit, and that emotion needs to be felt. Rather than staying busy in order to feel better… sit down, turn off the cell phone, and don’t move. Feel the shitiness. Is it in the shoulders? The throat? How about the stomache, or chest? What words would you use to describe the feeling? If the feeling had a voice, how would it sound? Is it the type of voice that you should listen to, or not? Good, you felt the emotion. It’s grateful for the attention. Now you can go on with your day. Look- you were about to clean the entire apartment or call somebody because you felt guilty. Instead, you did nothing, and now you don’t feel guilty. How about that? That didn’t take any zeal or excitement. And you feel better. Is that enthusiasm? Is there a type of enthusiasm that has nothing to do with work or excitement? The type of enthusiasm with which we slow down and allow space for (insert divinity here, “nothingness” perfectly acceptable) to enter and do the healing work our own busy-ness cannot.
Somewhere along the way “enthusiasm” has lost its way. The culprit, I believe, is our assumption that to be inspired is to be manic. That’s certainly not the case all the time. Another form of divine possession is to be free from acting out every single impulse, to relax. To do the dishes and forget what you were doing, and keep doing them anyway, casually. To floss your teeth and not view it as a chore. That’s the gift, to do mundane things, and have them not be a burden.
Because so much of what we have to do today is, let’s face it, far from heroic. Yet if we don’t do it with some form of enthusiasm we don’t enjoy it. I’m sorry, Lack of Enjoyment is far too weak for what I’m trying to get across. Remember, enthusiasm means the presence of a divinity. So if you’re doing something without enthusiasm, the divine is absent. In some theological ciricles, that’s equivalent to HELL. No enthusiasm equals Hell On Earth. And who wouldn’t want to escape from that? So we drink or become obsessed with Netflix because we’re unable to cope with the absence of god.
Let me wrap this up. I saw a crew removing christmas lights from the trees outside Walgreens. They were using these aluminum telescopic poles with hooks at the end that you use basically to push the lights off of the branches and let them fall to the ground. The lights. When I walked by, the sun was shining and a southern wind tickled my heart: I imagined they were partaking in an ancient pagan tradition of waking up grandfather tree for spring. Two of them worked gracefully, that is, unnoticably, preserving my day-dream. But the third worker struggled. He stabbed at the tree. He hated what he was doing. A chord of lights was stuck. He started whacking them with the broad side of the pole. Then he threw the pole to the ground. He jumped and grabbed the lights and started to pull. They were stuck, so he pulled harder. Suddenly a tree branch snapped in half. He was pissed, because on the ground were the lights, still tied in a knot around the amputated tree limb. I was horrified, because of how senseless was his rage. This time, his lack of enthusiasm hurt a tree. Next time, it could be his daughter or friend. But even worse than the pain he causes others, is the pain he causes himself. All of us have experienced it. When we’re doing something we don’t want to be doing: drudgery.
Perhaps, drudgery it is. But I want to come back to something. We can always shape what we are perceiving with our perspective. If I am constantly bored, perhaps it is because I am boring. If I think people are awkward, maybe it’s because I am awkward. If the work is a pain in the ass, maybe I’m a pain in the ass… we tend to project our shadows onto the external world. But the fact is, those shadows dwell within us. Doing work isn’t so much bad, as it is an opportunity to externalize how shitty we’re feeling.
Think about it: do you enjoy “free time”? Be honest. So few of us know what to do with our free time. Most of us waste it. Is it because it’s the one part of the day where we have no excuse, no one to blame for our feeling bad?
A theory for why we’re not too enthusiastic about free time: we’re beginners. For centuries, free time was a luxury. Only a select few, the aristocracy, had the opportunity to dive into the depths of unstructured time. Sometimes they came up with treasures: art, literature, music. Othertimes, they degressed into elaborate codes of behavior or indulged in perverse proclivities. Now, all of us have free time. But we’re so accustomed to being workers, we don’t know what the hell to do with “free time”. Secretly, we loath it more than anything. We act like we hate work and that we wish we could be doing what we really wanted to. But the truth is that work is a savior, because it gives us a time of day where we’re not faced with this perennial existential question: what should I do with my life?
I don’t think it needs to be that way. We can free time (read that in the imperative, as in “set time free” or “liberate time”). We can start by realizing what it is we really want to be doing with our lives. We can start by not distracting ourselves with entertainment or work. We can become enthusiastic for enthusiasm’s sake. I’m sure by now you’ve thought of at least one thing you’d rather be doing.