If you are a rancher in Wyoming, say, or Montana, what keeps you going? The ranch, right? You live to serve the ranch, and the various aspects that make up the ranch. You live to serve the cattle, and the horses, and the fences. You go to keep it going. It all depends on you.
Well, when you move away from the ranch, and take up residence in the Big City, doesn’t matter which one, all that changes. Nothing much there depends on you. If you don’t show up for work, they will find someone to replace you. If you don’t drop by the coffee shop, they will sell your coffee to someone else. You were essential to the ranch. You are expendable in the city.
Sandra Day O’Conner, the Supreme Court Justice, was reflecting on her importance as a judge after she announced her retirement. “Someone once told me,” she said, “that the amount of real difference you make in your life is the amount of difference your finger makes in a cup of water after you pull it out.” That’s a city girl talking. If she had spent her days on the ranch, working cattle, shoeing horses, mending fences, hauling hay, she would have a different take on things. No one notices you in the city. They can’t get along without you on the ranch. Our perspective is setting-dependent. If we want to see things differently, we are going to have to move around. If we want to see things differently, we are going to have to do things differently. We’re going to have to shoe horses, for instance.
And we cannot take the way we see things for the way things are. We can’t be going over into despair and depression because “nothing we do matters.” We would feel differently if we had a few cows counting on us to be fed, or milked. The surest cure for depression is to buy a cow, and keep her in the kitchen. You cannot be depressed with a cow in the kitchen. If you don’t believe me, ask around. See how many depressed people you find with cows in their kitchens.
To keep going, we have to have something to keep us going. There has to be something in our lives bigger than we are. A cow is definitely bigger than we are. So is a ranch. To keep going, we have to have attachments—essential attachments—to things and people beyond ourselves. We have to have crucial dependencies—the cows upon us, and us upon the cows. Self-sufficiency and independence will curl us up and cut us off from all that is good and worthy. There never was a rancher who didn’t need the ranch as much as the ranch needed her, or him.
Of course, it isn’t really as simple as buying a cow or owning a ranch. And, I don’t mean to make light of those of you who have struggled with depression throughout your lives. Having to clean up after a cow in the kitchen would depress Polly Anna. There have been plenty of depressed ranchers over time. There have been ranchers who didn’t want to get up and do that any more. The key is not in the cow. The key is in understanding there is no key. We are going to feel like staying in bed from time to time. We are going to feel badly about our lives. It’s going to seem like it’s going nowhere; like we are wasting our time; like there is no point to any of it. Enthusiasm for living comes and goes. And there are too many factors involved in that coming and going to isolate (or even count) them.
When it feels like we are just going through the motions, it is essential that we continue to go through the motions. When our heart isn’t in it, when we wonder what’s the point; when we can’t get past the questions, “So what? Who cares? Why try? What difference does it make?”; when we wish we could just quit; it’s critical that we continue doing the best we can do even when it makes no sense and we don’t want to. We have to know that enthusiasm for living comes and goes. We have to know that living well doesn’t depend upon how we feel about our lives. Going through the motions keeps us going. And, that is enough.
If we are going to believe anything, we have to believe it is enough to keep going. Its value will be borne out over time. In the meantime, keep going. One foot in front of the other. One step at a time. One day at a time. Easy does it. Here and now. Breathe in, breathe out. Plug away. Do what needs to be done and don’t worry about motive. Live through the mood and it will lift with time. All feelings change eventually.
When you find yourself in a place in your life where you just don’t care about anything, add that to your list of things you don’t care about--don’t care about not caring. Don’t invest not-caring with more importance than you invest in anything else. Don’t become so suddenly seized with the realization of not-caring that you begin to care about it to the exclusion of everything else—that you begin to love not-caring, and serve not-caring, and live your life not-caring because your identity is suddenly centered on the realization that you don’t care, can’t care, won’t care.
When you find yourself not-caring, believe in the cow anyway. Believe in the importance of feeding the cow, anyway. Do right by the cow, whether you care about the cow or not. Don’t let caring about the cow be the determining factor in how well you care for the cow. You can care for the cow, the way the cow ought to be cared for, without caring about the cow. You may not want to, but you can. What you do, and how well you do it, doesn’t depend upon what you feel like doing, or on what you want to do.
Enthusiasm for life comes and goes. Enthusiasm for the tasks of life comes and goes. Understand that well. Let come what’s coming, and let go what’s going, and live in the moment to the best of your ability, doing right by the moment, offering the moment what it needs, being good for the moment, no matter what. And, do it again in the next moment. And, watch your feelings for the moment, your feelings about the moment, come and go. You can live well regardless of how you feel. The cow doesn’t care whether you care about feeding the cow. If you do right by the cow, the cow will do right by you.