What would life be like if all you did was to watch life go by your window all day? In many ways it would be like being paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. It would be like being Stephen Hawking.
I like people who do a lot of watching, listening, observing and then thinking about it all. They are often quiet, intelligent and interested in the world around them. Sometimes they are a bit shy. They don’t have the confidence of the self-obsessed or the delusional. Some people try to accentuate this mode of being, like philosophers, Buddhists, meditators and some other religious groups. At the other extreme are people who rarely look, listen or take notice of others. They are often talkative, loud, busy and interested only in that bit of the world that relates to themselves.
So which is better, a life of observation and reflection or a life of action? I know many sensible people will tell me that it doesn’t have to be one way or the other and that a good life is often well-balanced. This is the ‘Middle Way’ beloved of Buddhists. Many people like to claim that the truth generally lies in the middle of two extremes. Don’t vote for the Nazis or the Communists, vote for a mainstream party. Don’t eat so much that you get fat or so little you starve to death. Everything in moderation, moderation in all things.
However, the Middle Way isn’t always the answer. If we always have to look for the middle way, how much urine should we put in the water supply? 10 parts per 100, or none? The Middle Way would be 5 parts, but I would rather plump for none, if it’s all the same with you.
So is ‘observing or doing’ a case of all or nothing or of striking a balance? And how can you tell? If it’s a question of balance, where does a good balance lie? 50/50 perhaps? 75/25?
Either way, I suspect it is harder to listen than to talk, just as it is harder to save money than to spend it. If you don’t believe me, try listening to someone go on for longer than a few minutes and you will soon find yourself getting restless, your eyes glazing over and thinking of ways to escape. Yet if you are talking then you could probably go on forever. I am not particularly talkative but I get much less restless listening to myself talk than to others.
The life of the man in the wheelchair in The Butterfly and the Diving Bell (above) is one in which he has been reduced to no action and lots of listening, looking and thinking. He finds his life unbearable and I think I would too. Even meditators and philosophers wouldn’t choose this kind of life for themselves. Contemplation is all very well but it has its limits.
The same goes for the Gods of Olympus (above). If they could only look down on us and watch they would soon die of boredom. It is only by interfering in the lives of Jason and the Argonauts and by placing bets on what will happen next down on earth that their lives in the sky remain bearable.
So that rules out a life of pure observation and reflection. Then how about a life of pure action? Well, that certainly sounds better. A typical day might involve playing football, eating lunch, going to the pub, talking to friends, travelling to work and working. Yes, that could nicely fill a day. Of course, even talking to friends involves a certain amount of listening, otherwise both of you would be talking at the same time with neither one listening. Then there would be no point in talking.
So, perhaps the best balance is a life of action with a bit of listening, watching and reflection thrown in? Well, maybe. Or it could be that the distinction between active doing and passive watching isn’t as black and white as I imagine. Perhaps all actions involve some degree of observation and reflection. And conversely, maybe it is possible to watch a football match or listen to a concert actively. I find it hard to say.