If it’s broke, still don’t fix it

[what lies below is the second draft. The author wrote a third and final draft but found it to be reprehensible in its crystal clarity. In the third version, a few paragraphs were removed or otherwise tweaked, making the essay more concise, coherent, and cogent. Furthermore, instead of tangents into the author’s personal life or his half-baked ideas about “work” you get a clearly stated thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
The rationale for choosing the more original version was that the author found it- however ungainly- to reveal his own uncertainty and wonder, and that that was more true than appearing as if he were certain on these matters.
The author extends his sincere gratitude to all the readers willing to make the effort, meeting him more-than-half-way. He also- a bit haughtily- adds another riddle: which is the final draft? The one below, or the one that came after it that will never see the light of day?]

I left home for two days and was worried how my house plants would be without me watering them. When I came back they were huge. Part of it was my perception (usually I see them every few hours and growth is inconspicuous). But most of it is that I wasn’t home to water them. The woman at the nursery said the oregano especially didn’t need to be watered often. But being the loving parent I am, or rather, wanting to feel like the loving parent I might be, I watered oregano every day, sometimes twice. The plants didn’t need me; they needed to be left alone.

A lot of things are better left alone: scabs, grumpy people, nature. Nothing sums it up like, “If it aint broke don’t fix it”. However, I have a tendency to over-exert myself, thinking that the only way things will be okay is if I sweat, bleed and toil.

I have some theories why. There’s something called the Puritan work ethic- prominent in this country- that states “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”. There’s also the industrial revolution, which has made hard work into a virtue (for a long time, it simply was not). Another explanation is that our society is biased, privileging the active over the passive.

All these explanations are true, perhaps to describe a general atmosphere in which I’m prone to over-do it. But they fail to get at the root of why I drown my house plants believing I’m doing them good.

I think the answer is simple, and universal: Ego. Ego says that I am in charge and can manipulate the world and fix it; it says I am responsible for when things are going well- or bad; ego wants to be as real as possible, so it works to effect change; when it acts on something (i.e. excessively watering plants) it tells itself it’s doing good, when really the “good feeling” is a feeling of power. Nietzsche articulated this point most exhaustively.

Let me give you a practical example. A friend of mine applied for a job at where I work. I said he could put me down as a reference. He interviewed. He said it went well. Few days later… he got the job. Immediately (in my mind) I took credit. Part of me was happy for him, but an even bigger part of me was happy at my own sense of power. That my name carries weight. But it’s not true. It was not my doing. He felt confident going into the interview and did a great job. Perhaps he got the job in spite of me. OK, that’s probably not true, either. It’s fair to say that I had a part- as a connector- but that he got the job because of his own doing. My employers, the interviewers, also had a part. My friend’s friends who supported him, also had a part. And maybe, just maybe, so did something else. Something greater than any of us…

If the problem is ego, how is it overcome? Should I work hard to eliminate my selfish tendencies? Should I take certain actions (like helping someone else) to get me out of myself? Should I identify with other people, seeing the similarities instead of the differences? Should I identify with the entire universe, hoping to transcend ego completely? Yes…

… and no. Because if I do any of those things, then my ego will end up taking the credit for overcoming itself. We’ve stepped into a paradox. I can’t do it alone. I have to ask for help. I can take some of the steps, but the dissolution of ego isn’t something ego can do. That’s not even a paradox, it’s a contradiction.

In practical terms, think of the plant. It doesn’t grow itself. All it does is absorb water, sun, earth and air. If it gets those things, growth just happens. Same with us. Or at least, I can speak for myself, about my own strategy: set the optimal conditions for growth (emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual). From there, the growth just happens- but it’s not my doing.

And you know what? Sometimes I “over-water” myself. Usually, it’s too many books or emotional expression. Rarely do I exercise or meditate too much. I know other people who are the opposite, but the same principle applies: we do too much. Instead, we could let the natural growth process occur- on the condition we do the basics.

It always does, unless you’re self-destructive. Something no plant has to wrestle with.

  1. #1 by Workplace Wonders: "Work and Life Inquiries." on May 22, 2013 - 7:54 pm

    Just do the right thing but don’t “congratulate” yourself, right?

    I have been on a blogging hiatus but I am finally back! Going to try to keep it up this time.

  2. #3 by kdgallagher on July 22, 2013 - 8:40 am

    sometimes good things happen when your ego-satisfaction overlaps with another’s ego-satisfaction.

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