How You Work Is How You Worship


College was a strange time. We, my closest friends and I, were all over-the-top idealistic. We believed we could change the world. We had the right, moral ideas after all. We wanted to end suffering. Isn't that what wins out in the end? To help the suffering?  

It feels naive now, but I miss that idealism. It's much harder to muster up much enthusiasm now when most of us have struggled and suffered. It's hard to think about macro change when the micro, everyday mundanity of existence feels so hard. 

I remember many of my idealistic friends in college decided to pursue lucrative work in tech and finance after college. I often asked them with a bit of judgment, what happened to changing the world? Their answers were always the same. "When I make a lot of money, I can use that to help change the world." 

Almost 20 years later that idealism is mostly gone. Yes, they made money. But no, they hadn't used that money to change the world. What happened to them? It's what happens to everyone: we become trapped by our choices. 

With more money comes more disposable income. And with more disposable income comes the pursuit of pleasures. It means nicer cars and expensive apartments. It means meals that cost over a $100 are hardly a big deal. It means vacations to far away places. But it's not just materialism that overtakes us. Many of them have kids and wives now and must deal with the expenses of school and healthcare and all the rest. 

I say all this with little judgment now. I understand how hard life is now. I understand suffering far better than I did at 21. I understand the need to want things for yourself and your family. Afterall, I want many of those same things too. 

But I'm reminded of this David Foster Wallace quote when I think about my friends who were once idealistic.

If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

It's a strange thing, but human beings almost always believe that they are good. I'm reminded of Himmler's letter and his declarations of the good work he was doing in creating Auschwitz for example. Or I think about people I've met who worked at Lockheed, making missiles for the U.S. government who believed they were doing the right thing. 

And I think about my once idealistic friends who are now just like everyone else. It hurts me to think about it. I know they are good and kind people. But they like all of us, have falled prey to their own worship. After all, our work is how we worship. Our work is our prayer, whether you are religious or an atheist. We, after all, spend most of our lives either working or sleeping. And even though we might feel differently inside, our work is who we become whether we want to or not.

Worship happens so insidiously and unconsciously over the years. It happens without many of us ever noticing. And before we know it, our souls are lost. We can feel this itching and gnawing for something more, but can't even fathom what that means or what that looks like. We are trapped in our lives but smile and go along as if everything is ok. We are seemingly the same people we are when we were younger but maybe a little hollower, maybe a little more dazed, maybe without any idea of who we are or what we want.

It's sad to think about. But how do we stop it?