When Bob Dylan sings the words, “He not busy being born is busy dying”, he offers us an important insight into human psychology. Namely, if we ever are so foolish as to refuse rebirth and renewal, then we are “busy dying”. For the only way a human can stay alive spiritually, or psychologically, is to be reborn — again and again and again.
I am often reminded of that truth these days because of a friend of mine. He has reached old age and, unfortunately, ceased being reborn.
Even on a relatively superficial level — the level of one’s opinions — my friend has turned to stone. The opinions he has today are substantially no different than the opinions he held a decade ago. His intellectual curiosity has evaporated. He merely repeats himself.
Somewhat more profoundly, he has come to isolate himself as much as possible from new experiences. His routine is set. His day contains few challenges. He no longer wishes to be bothered with the new, the novel, the unexplored.
Old age can do that to us; it can be merciless. I do not point to him in order to blame him for what so many of us experience — or will experience — if we live long enough. Instead, I merely wish to illustrate how “He’s not busy being born is busy dying”.
Yet, we need not look to old age alone to illustrate in what ways Dylan’s observation might be true. Society in many ways puts a great deal of pressure on all of us to be as unchanging, as constant, as ossified, as possible. Nor does one have to look far to see great and small examples of that pressure. Didn’t society teach you the only valuable love is unchanging? Didn’t it teach you any love which comes and goes is “mere infatuation”?
Or, look at class distinctions in so many societies — the social sanctions that are leveled like canon against anyone who dares to break out of the social class they were born into.
Again, take even the most trivial example: How often have you heard someone called a “flip-flopper”, a “waffler”? How often have you heard it said changing your opinions shows a lack of firmness and character? Demanding that someone never change their opinions is tantamount to demanding they learn nothing from one day to the next. Yet, society generally values the person who learns nothing during the course of a day over the person who learns something new.
I cannot begin to cover here the myriad ways society tries to pressure people into remaining constant. Yet, remaining constant is not at all the same thing as being true to ourselves.
“He’s not busy being born is busy dying”. How else can you stay genuinely true to yourself without being reborn — again and again and again? For the self is always changing.
I think that becomes obvious once you give up trying to be a self and instead just observe yourself day to day. When you have learned to observe yourself like a scientist would observe a fruit fly — as dispassionately as that — you see how much you change. But to clearly observe yourself, I think you must neither condemn nor praise what you observe. A dispassionate scientist would neither condemn nor praise a fruit fly — why should we think we need to condemn or praise ourselves? Condemnation and praise seem to be mere ways of escaping from clear observation.
I do not believe it is necessary — and I believe it can even be detrimental — to set for ourselves a goal of change or renewal.
Instead, once we learn how to dispassionately observe ourselves, we will understand ourselves — and with that understanding comes change. But if we set a goal of renewal, we will only achieve a little change — far short of a rebirth — and then backslide. Everyone has seen that happen to those people who pray fervently to become better people, go for two weeks or two months, and then backslide. It’s even true some people spend their whole lives doing that without ever catching on to how worthless it is. Yet, merely learn how to dispassionately observe ourselves and the rest will come naturally.
D. H. Lawrence somewhere writes beautifully of another reason we should avoid setting a predetermined goal for how we want to change. Speaking to young people, he reminds them they have often been told that the challenge of youth is to throw off the chains that oppress them. He then explains how they have been misled by that, and how throwing off the chains that oppress them is by no means the primary challenge of youth. Instead, he tells them their job is to “discover the unexpected door” to their lives. Why is that true?
I think it is true because, as Heraclitus long ago said, “No man steps into the same river twice, because either the river has changed, or the man has changed, or both.” Now, if that’s a simple fact, then how can anyone stay true to themselves without being reborn — without “discovering the unexpected door”? Perhaps when we set a predetermined goal to how we want to change, we close off that unexpected door, and with it, our chance for genuine rebirth.