It’s a simple question really.
What did you do today?
The idea behind it, whether the concern or request for such information is genuine or just feigned good manners, is equally simple.
Please recount your day for me.
I would like a short history of the events of your life for the past twelve or fifteen hours.
Barring the need to do so as a means of accounting for hours spent at work, answering this question usually takes on a hybrid form that is little changed since that point in childhood when we first understood that the same society that put a purple dinosaur on television to explain that we are all one big, equal family, had begun to place us into our little hierarchal niches.
How does that conversation normally go?
Is it a happy conversation? Do you recount praise or a promotion from your boss? How about a good deed done for someone in need? A breakthrough in some sort of endeavor? You did one hundred push-ups without stopping for the first time since high school. You solved world hunger. You made a revolutionary breakthrough in economics that makes Adam Smith and John Nash both look inept. Is that the kind of answer you give?
Is it a depressing conversation? Does your account wallow in self-pity? Do you revel in the pain of others? Did you get fired or watch someone else lose their job? Did you rubberneck on the way home at some poor soul sitting behind the wheel of a car on the shoulder of a two-lane highway with three squad cars behind it? Does your account of your day involve the embellished description of how you told someone off, showed ‘em how smart you are, or demonstrated in intricate detail how they might be the dumbest person in existence?
Why do you have either conversation? Is it a basic human desire to crave attention and recognition that drives us to ask such questions and answer them with the aplomb and self-assuredness of a mad king?
Quite possibly, yes.
The reason we recount our daily lives to each other, usually in the hope that the favor of re-gifting such a question will be returned at the end of a soliloquy in which the subject has either suffered greatly, vanquished all foes, or both—is really very simple.
We are self-centered creatures. We want, and in some cases need to be the center of our own little universe—spouse, partner, kids, friends, family, co-workers, and perfect strangers drifting around us in oblong orbits of relevance. We need to be the “I”. We see the world in terms of “me” and “my”. Our world is dictated by a series of events in which we are purely reactive to the concept that everything simply must revolve around us like some twisted form of pre-Galilean Tic-Tac-Toe where we always occupy the center-square with a large, flamboyant, attention-grabbing “X”. Eight billion suns walking around, all with some subconscious idea that we either exert some form of gravity on everyone else or are rampaging through the universe like little, self-indulgent Death Stars.
Why is this so?
Psychology has dozens of reasons for such behavior (probably hundreds), most attached to the name of a famous, but deceased practitioner or theorist whose volumes of published materials all somehow seem to contain similar notions of needs and fulfillment. But the real answer is probably something simpler than all that. It’s likely a notion that you’ve already felt and considered. Even better, it’s something that you don’t need a doctorate from an Ivy League school to understand.
That’s it isn’t it? Time. The one idea that the laws of physics have no sway over. Nothing can stop it. No matter what you do, time moves relentlessly forward, gobbling up everything in its path. Nothing beats Father Time. He’s undefeated. Just ask the dinosaurs.
Whether we admit it publicly or not, we all have some sense that our time is limited. Maybe it manifests as a really narrow view, only encompassing the waking hours of any given daily cycle. But it doesn’t stop there. You know that as well as I do.
The notion that the time we have left is an unmeasurable and finite resource (it’s a little like driving a car with a broken fuel gage in that respect) is a disturbing little gremlin that lives in our subconscious—creeping up once in a while to scare the living daylights out of us.
It happens at the funeral of someone only a year older, leaving you to simultaneously wonder how that happened while making statements about how the recently passed was so young (not much older than you).
It happens in the quiet of night when you’re blinking away at the dark ceiling while you ponder the fact that your forty-second birthday is next week and try to figure out how the hell you got old enough to have teenagers who look at you with a mixture of curiosity and that please-God-don’t-let-my-friends-find-out-my-parents-get-all-teary-eyed-watching-Cobra-Kai look on their faces.
It happens. To all of us. Just a matter of when the wake up call comes.
At some point, that little gremlin parks his ugly, fat ass on your chest, stares you in the face with his one bloodshot eye and his oversized nose dripping snot while he smacks the shit out of you with the longer of his two bony, arthritic hands (only three fingers on that one, of course).
Once he’s got your undivided attention, that little bastard screams at you and starts mansplaining all sorts of unhelpful, terrifying, panic attack-inducing little tidbits of information—usually a color commentary of all of your faults, followed by an ever-growing list of regrets that he’s made and checked twice like some deranged little Santa Claus.
That little asshole yells at you and questions you, poking and prodding and extracting details about every little thing you wish you’d done. He gets at all of the wishing and dreaming that you’ve buried deep inside in a variety of evil little ways that make the CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program and Disney’s “It’s A Small World” ride look as gentle as your pet bunny Flopsy-Bob.
Finally, once he’s got you off your high horse and feeling like you’ve wasted your entire existence, right before that little sonofabitch vanishes back into whatever dimension he came from, he likes to throw one last little factoid at you. While the language (and use of expletives) may vary, the dickhead’s pitch sounds like a report on the stock market and usually goes something like this:
“Oh. Before I head back to hell for a party with those dogs from Ghostbusters, I read that average life expectancy is seventy-eight years now. Down from a high of eighty-six. Given that, your life is more than fifty-three percent complete. Too-da-loo.”
At that point, you pick up the empty scotch glass from the nightstand and try to hit the bugger in his one, blood-shot eye as he skips off into the darkness.
Then there’s a pause.
What did you do today?
Does that question even matter?
Is there a better question? Is there a less self-centered question? Is there a question that really matters?
Sure, there is. But it’s not what you think. You could try to make yourself feel better by rephrasing the question. What did you do today that matters? Does that help? Do you feel better bragging about your day that way? Does it ease your conscience to give yourself, that little gremlin, and anyone else who’ll listen a play-by-play recounting of your daily quest to supplant Mother Theresa and simultaneously save all of the kids and puppies in those commercials with Sarah McLachlan singing in the background?
Might there be an even better question? One that eases off on the reins of selfish grandeur and might actually help everyone around you?
Yep. There is. And it’s a very good question. It gets to the heart of who we are supposed to be and why we are here. It helps to counteract the learned behavior that there is anyone beneath us. It works against the notion that there are people out there who are undeserving of our best.
What will you do tomorrow?
Notice it says “will” and not “can”. There is always the possibility that you “can” do something. Hell, even Charles Manson could have helped someone out. “Can” just denotes the presence of capability. You “can”, barring certain medical ailments, use the restroom. You “can” take out the trash. You “can” do your homework. You “can” change a damn diaper once in a while. The question is what “will” you do tomorrow?
Why is that the question? That’s simple too.
Tomorrow ain’t a fuckin’ guarantee. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if you are the healthiest person on the planet, running ten miles a day, doing yoga, and eating a diet that would have health insurance companies dying to insure your ass. I don’t care if you subscribe to the George Burns philosophy that a cigar and bottle a day keep the coroner away. It simply does not matter. When it’s your time, that’s it. End of tale. Do not pass go. Head directly for the local understaker. I’ll say it again.
Tomorrow ain’t guaranteed.
I know. I know. If tomorrow ain’t guaranteed, why am I asking about it?
Simple. Because in the time it takes you to read this sentence, to process what it says into language and conscious thought, all of the actions required to do so are already in the past. Gone. History.
In effect, what I’m asking is what will you do next. Will that next act be worth it? Will it be beneficial to someone other than your own ego or will your next act continue to be self-serving?
Unless you genuinely believe that the reason we exist is to destroy the planet and injure our fellow humans (and other living creatures—that damn gremlin excluded), there has to be some desire to be a helpful and compassionate organism present within each and every one of us.
We all started out that way. No kid ever mentions wanting to be a dictator or a murderer when he or she grows up. Kids want to be doctors, cops, and firefighters. They want to be scientists and astronauts, farmers, painters, authors, and zookeepers.
Because they want to help. Because they want to discover. They want to explore and create, build and color and draw and generate happiness. As a small child, you wanted these things just like I did. We all had similar dreams and fantasies and goals.
Because, as a small child, you believe in something so utterly fundamental that thinking about it now, and considering just how far away you’ve gotten from that idea, will deep fat fry whatever is left of that soul of yours and send you spiraling into an abyss where your only company is that asshole gremlin who’s been on a six-month bender consisting of whisky, coke, and three cases of Redi-Whip.
In asking what you “will” do tomorrow, contemplating what you’re gonna go do next, you have the power to change your world (provided you don’t develop some damn plot to subjugate all of humanity to your whim, build some redonkulous pyramid scheme designed to screw a few million poor folks out of their life savings or something equally nefarious).
I’m not asking you to quit your job and embark on some Quixotic quest to save mankind. Start simple. Do the things you regret not doing. Put the Xbox controller down and go play with your kids. Pick up the phone and call your family. Help someone in need if you can. Teach someone something. Learn to skateboard. Rescue a puppy. Or a kitten. Or a sibling for Flopsy-Bob. Check off a few items on that twenty-two-year old “honey-do” list (preferably after actually doing the work, you jackass).
It doesn’t matter what you do, just do it for others. Make it part of the past. Don’t let it be a regret.
Do something good.
Think of something else you can do.
Do the next good thing.
Enjoy your life, your family, your friends. Enjoy the world around you. Make it better. Teach others to do the same.
And when that gremlin shows his ugly mug again, pour him a drink, put a Beatles album on, and befriend the little guy.
Maybe he needs help too.