“Do less.” “Be more.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve tried to tell myself these words every day. Like many of you, before the world shut down, I felt that to be successful I had to keep moving faster and be more productive. I tried to cram in one more meeting or put in one more hour. I had to run from one end of LA to the other.
Then, in March, everything stopped.
I remember waking up and feeling anxious, not just out of fear and worry – that’s normal – but I had this agitation that I wasn’t doing enough. They say that when someone loses a limb they can still feel an itch or a pain long after it’s gone. I had a similar feeling, like a phantom muscle memory of feeling like I was never doing enough. It was like running around to get somewhere but there was nowhere to go, or being exhausted from not doing anything. Before COVID, I had to do more, get more, push more. But I couldn’t. And for the first time in modern history, the entire world was telling us to quiet down and don’t leave home.
It’s hard to do less. We are conditioned from early in our lives to do more. Nearly a thousand years ago, life began to accelerate. In China around 1040 CE, an artist known as Bi Sheng took Chinese characters and cast them in ceramic and arranged them in a frame to create the very first movable type system for printing. Four hundred years later, Johannes Gutenberg “discovered” the same technique using metal and created the first printing press in Europe. Movable type meant that we could accelerate our knowledge for the first time. Before we could print, we would scribe, taking, in some cases, an entire year to copy the book onto new parchment. Now, information can be shared more easily with each other, slowly accelerating propelling innovation, urging us to do more with our found time that new technology promises us. Every acceleration whispers to us, “do more.”
Every time we try to do more, we become less. It was in the early twentieth century when mechanical reproduction meant we could create a vast amount of good with less effort. Yet, workers, managers, and consumers all felt diminished in the process. As productivity rose, happiness for many dwindled. Now, as many more positions can be eliminated because of Artificial Intelligence and robotic technology, we are finding that humans just can’t do more, machines and computers can. We’ve become less.
Information, too, accelerated to the point of overload. With the internet, every piece of information is infinitely abundant, delivered automatically and instantaneously at every moment. And like the factory worker of the 20th century who feels diminished by their work, the knowledge worker of the 21st is showing similar feelings . Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and expert on attention deficit disorder, says that modern workplaces create an “attention deficit trait” that parallels the genetic disorder. By feeling that we have to do more all the time, we lose our process, to focus and reflect and feel demoralized.This is also what author Linda Stone recognized when she coined the phrase, “continuous partial attention” where we are never fully focused on one thing. Think of watching TV while checking email, or listening to a podcast while chatting with family. We’ve overloaded ourselves so much in doing more, that we are actually losing our attention, our focus, and our well-being. The effect is that the more we do, the less we become.
Do less. Be more.
The same overload dynamic is found in this week’s Torah portion, Vaera. In the second section of the Exodus cycle, God and Moses show up to free the Israelites. God declares, “I am the LORD…I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians…I will redeem you with an outstretched arm…And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God…I will bring you into the land!”(Exodus 6:2-8)
No revelation can be clearer. The Redeemer is here and slavery is about to end. In God’s first public revelation in hundreds of years, you would think it would capture the attention of the enslaved Israelites. Except, as the Torah writes, no one can hear God’s voice. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not hear (shamu) Moses, their spirits crushed by the cruel bondage.” (Exodus 6:9) Like all of us, the slaves in Egypt were so consumed with work that their entire beings were so thoroughly crushed, they could not hear the Redeemer singing in their hearts.
This is what overload looks like. Whether it’s the external voices of oppression, or internal voices of depression, the more we do, the less we become until we are so thoroughly enslaved that we cannot imagine a world that is better than the one unfolding before us. The rabbis extended this vision, by saying that the state of mind of the Israelites was so diminished that they could not comprehend the promise of a better life. (Rashi and Sforno) When forced to confuse our daily activity with real action, and to befuddle success with productivity, we diminish our sense of self. Our souls are crushed and we dream smaller, gaze upon smaller peaks, and ultimately live smaller.
By doing more, we hear less. By doing more we feel less. By doing more we become less.
Notice the Hebrew word for the incomprehension in the text. It says, the Israelites could not hear God’s voice. The Hebrew word is shamu; it’s the same word used in Deuteronomy, as the central creed of Israel. If Judaism has a statement of faith it would be this, to “Hear O Israel , the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) What could not be heard in Exodus is heard in Deuteronomy. The Exodus story, Judaism’s gift to the world, is both physical and spiritual. God wants us to move from oppression to freedom and to break the fetters of injustice while also allowing us to hear, to grow, and to achieve. At the center of our spiritual identity is our ability to be more than who we are by recognizing the interconnectedness of us all. When we demand that we do less, we can free ourselves from the voice that says we are not enough, to kill ourselves to make ourselves, and find the space to laugh, to breathe, and to focus.
If you can hear the voice that says you are part of something greater, and that doing hard things is not the same as doing many things, you can find that Torah from within, and be more than you are. As the vaccines roll out, and we return to the world again, we should also think about how we can do less, so that we can be more.