It is such a common complaint, and we hear it all over the world today. Why? Has time shrunk? Does the day no longer have twenty four hours? It has, just as it had ever since we divided it up into this rather strange figure (what has 24 got to do with the daily alternations of light and darkness?)
Several times, I met Vietnamese refugees in their countries of resettlement who said to me: "Here, it is true, I have a house, car, TV, video, washing machine, good food, plenty of clothes and money, but I’m not happy, because I have no time. When I was in the Refugee Camp, I was very poor and had none of these things, but I had time, and was happy. Sometimes, I would like to be back there". These were people who had fled their homelands in search of freedom (so they said), but I think it was something else they were looking for, something deeper and harder to find than freedom. They had limited freedom in the Camps compared to what they have in the countries that kindly accepted them for resettlement, yet many of them, looking back (because they probably didn’t realize it while living in the Camps, as their eyes were fixed on resettlement, often with dollar signs —$$—in them), say they were happy there, while in their new countries they are often not. So, what they were looking for was not really freedom but happiness; few people are concerned enough about freedom to look for it. If they had been happy in their own countries before, would they have risked death on the booby trapped trails of Cambodia to escape to the overcrowded squalor of Camps in Thailand, or on their packed, frail boats on the open seas, at the mercy of wind, waves, and bloodthirsty pirates?
There are limits to freedom in every country, though some countries, of course, have more freedom than others. In no country is there complete freedom, and even in countries that were known as bastions of democracy—Britain, Australia and the US, for example—freedom is gradually being eroded and lost, on one hand by the governments, as more and more laws are enacted and taxes imposed (in Australia, failure to vote is punishable by a fine; what kind of democracy is that?), and on the other hand by citizens who, out of ignorance and stupidity, abuse and destroy it. However, I still prefer to live in a democratic country than under a totalitarian system; who doesn’t? Although there are limits, we have the right to go where and when we want, to speak openly and without fear, to work, study, seek redress under the law, and so on.
As a monk, I have different priorities in life than most people, so I don’t complain about having no time. While I seem to have more of that ‘commodity’ that other people grumble about lacking, there are things they have that I don’t, but still I would not change places with them, nor they with me. Does not this mean that we can’t have everything? We are in an either/or situation, and must choose. Do we have a right to complain? What can we reasonably expect from life? We have been spoiled by the welfare system and have grown to expect things as our rights. But life knows nothing about rights, and cares not if we live or die. Instead of depending so much upon welfare systems, it would be better if we were to spend a bit of time trying to understand the laws of life and live accordingly.
The limited time that we live in this world—we don’t know how limited, but we do know it is so—forces us to make compromises; we obviously can’t have everything we want (unless we are of the tiny minority who have so much money that they don’t have to work; I am not addressing such people here).
Imagine a child being turned loose in a toy store and told he may have everything he can carry: his arms would probably be full within the first few steps, but as he proceeds, things would be discarded in favor of other things he likes better. If he could, he would take a truckload of toys from the store, but he has been restricted to what he can carry in his arms, so must choose. How or what he chooses, of course, depends on him; different children would choose different things, according to age and preference. Later, they might regret having chosen as they did, and complain that they were limited and not allowed to take more. Would they be justified in so complaining? Would they not do better to consider their fortune at being allowed to choose anything at all in the first place?
We must ask ourselves what we really want from life—no, what we want to do with our lives—and be more realistic about it. The world is much more open to us than many of us realize, and it is better to have attempted something and failed than sit dreaming of doing great things but never to try at all. If you just surrender—which is easier—and let yourself be carried along by the stream of mindless people who have no idea at all where they are going, you may do so, but shouldn’t then complain, because you will have chosen that; you should know that it is not the only way to go.
"But we have to live!" many people would say; "How can we live without working?" I am not unsympathetic to this, and understand, yet still would say: "Yes, I know you must work in order to earn the right to live in this world, but having earned it, what are you going to do with your life then? Are you just a worker bee that does nothing but work until it drops dead and is then flung unceremoniously out of the hive? You work hard to fill your lives with luxuries, things to enjoy, and which make life easier (and I’m speaking here of people in affluent countries where my words might be read, not of/to people in impoverished lands where it is all they can do to feed their families and survive); you have chosen these things in preference over time; if you had not wanted such things as new cars, videos, CD players, mobile phones, caravans, boats, etc., you would not have to work so hard and would have more time. But would you choose that? And even if you improbably did, what then would you do with your time? Most likely, you would feel bored and complain of nothing to do. You see, we have become pleasure addicts and have lost the ability to amuse or entertain ourselves; we want to be entertained electronically, at the push of a button. (When I was in India in 1988, I was invited to the home of a civil servant who had quite a high position in the Archaeological Department, and I saw that, given central place in his home was an old black-and-white TV set he had just acquired, and his family and some of the neighbors were all sitting around it. But, although switched on, it was not working and there was no picture on the screen! However, maybe the family took comfort in the fact that at least they had a TV, while their neighbors did not!)
It’s not easy to know when enough is enough; we can think of many reasons to want more than we need. Some years ago, I saw an Australian TV program about people on the dole. Interviewed was a man who complained he was unable to feed or clothe his children properly on the amount of unemployment benefit he got. Asked about his own pleasure, however, he replied, without shame, that he went to the pub only one night a week and spent A$60 drinking and playing poker machines! Perhaps he would have liked an increase in his ‘allowance’, since it was obviously insufficient!
Someone I know, who was a driving instructor at that time (I’m ashamed to say what he is now), used to boast of ‘making’ about A$2,000 a week, and compared himself with the wealthiest doctor in the area. But much of his A$2,000 was made illegally, as he cheated his students by taking two, three or even four of them for lessons in the car at the same time, and charged them each for the time they were in his salubrious company, as if they, individually, had his full and undivided attention (not a rare practice, it seems). Not only this, but some of his students informed me that before taking them for their test, he told them that unless they gave him extra money, they wouldn’t pass; apparently, he was in cahoots with the examiners. Thus, he owned several houses, vehicles, etc., when he had arrived as a penniless refugee just a few years earlier, and was envied as ‘rich’. In my opinion, however, he was poor, as his wealth was acquired through cheating. Once, when speaking to me about people who got a regular wage of about A$350 per week, he said: "They can earn only about $50 per week". Well, I knew that his English, even after ten years in Australia, was still not very good, so I understood that he meant ‘save’ instead of ‘earn’. But what he said showed what he thought: he did not realize that people on whom he condescendingly looked down from his $2,000 per week height, apart from being able to save $50 per week, also earned their living and supported their families, and unlike him, they did it honestly. Was this something to look down upon?
If we are not careful, envy may easily creep into our lives and grow like a cancer, until we might come to secretly envy demons like arms dealers and drug pushers, who become rich through the suffering and deaths of others. Are such people to be envied? They should be pitied instead for having lost their most precious possession: their humanness. It isn’t easy to be human; it consists not just of having a human body but requires a human mind, too, and not everyone with a human body has a human mind—let alone a humane mind!
To conclude: We can change our lives, if we want to, by taking stock of ourselves and deciding what is and what is not important, to see things in perspective, and get our priorities in order. Are we to be Prisoners or Masters of Time?