“He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying”

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.

6 thoughts on ““He Not Busy Being Born Is Busy Dying”

  1. Change is one of the scariest and hardest thing we as people have to do in our life. People don’t want to change because they get comfortable in their little shell and the world can be a scary and risky place. But you haven’t truly lived until you’ve risked it. Whatever it might be.

    My Dad always told me, “You know what separates the successful from the TRULY successful people, or the moderates from the successful?” What? “The ability to change…”

    And sure enough I have had multiple instances in my life where I had to make a change or else things would have spiraled out of control for me. My ability to recognize a need for change 7 years ago was probably the only thing that got me to where I am today.

    And Paul, you are dead on about our culture. It just breeds this system where mediocrity and conformity is celebrated. And change is seen as something bad.

    We teach our children that risk is something not to be attempted by tearing down their jungle gyms and putting up the crappy and boring slides and playgrounds. We teach our kids that TV’s make the best babysitters by plopping them down in front of one instead of taking them outside for a nature walk, or reading them a book.

    I need to stop before I fill up this site on one topic ;-P

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  2. Certainty brings a sense of comfort. It’s no accident that so many would rather live like your friend in the comfortable certainty of a black and white world, where little changes and meanings are pre-determined and clear. To imagine a safety net, a world in which my meaning transcends my own thoughts about it, is to imagine a world in which I grasp immortality as my permanent and unchanging self. It has a certain appeal.

    But it is grasped at the expense of self-exploration, just as you say, Paul. It disables me from detaching from a certain idea of my self so that I can continue to grow.

    It’s no accident that the older people get, the more inclined we tend to be towards a need for certainty. Death approaches and we can see in the forces of chaos breaking down our bodies, the inevitability of our doom in stark contrast to the virility of our youth. The impulse to cling to certainty in a sea of chaos becomes all the greater the more we see the chaos closing in around us.

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  3. Change is constant and the quicker pace of modern life leads to us clinging the ‘the way things were’. Yet, growth in athletics and celebrities is considered noble. A team changes players to reach for the championship and that is considered great. I change political parties and I’m a traitor.

    Personal change can happen at any age but for many, old age is a terrible thing and nothing new is worth learning. Yet study after study show that stimulating the brain does more to stave off the effects of aging than any prescription pill ever will.

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  6. I frequently ask myself, what happened to the ideals so passionately held in youth ?
    Did they simply disappear like the falling leaves of Autumn or imperceptibly change with the passing of time ?

    To avoid a rambling treatise, I offer a snapshot of my experience.

    Idealism is the luxury of youth; this is characterised by certainty about the defects in society
    and the impatience to see things improve. Despite the indiscretions and folly of youth, revolution is the only solution.

    Expediency is the means of surviving the vicissitudes of early adulthood; the coming of age brings the burden of responsibility, taking charge of one’s life and taking difficult decisions. Conflicts of interest arise and compromises are made. Self interest displaces the common good as the
    template for decision making.

    Pragmatism is the means of navigating through the mounting responsibilities of middle age; ideals are left far behind by personal ambition and the struggle for success. Security and a comfortable place in society dominate the agenda; decisions are carefully calibrated to maximise personal reward and minimise risk.

    Acceptance is the repository of wisdom that lies in wait for the maturity of old age; experience suggests that the world must be accepted for what it is, not what we would like it to be.
    We have come to accept an important lesson: before we can change the world we must change ourselves. Or in the immortal words of Bob Dylan:

    ‘ That he not busy being born is busy dying ‘. ( It’s alright Ma (I’m only bleeding)
    To escape the grip of comforting ideologies and the mental straightjacket of social conformity, an open and inquisitive mind is a prerequisite of personal progress. Independence of mind and the ability to exercise your own judgement rather than trusting the judgement of others is essential in an age of ceaseless information and banal opinion. As the great Irish poet, Yeats, observed:

    ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity (Yeats, The Second Coming).

    Honesty and the quest for truth is a long and rocky road but, as the great polemicist and political writer, George Orwell, wrote:

    ‘ In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’.

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