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The Butt-Ends of My Days and Ways

A while back I investigated my life as a performer in film and television as it related to the Eightfold Path, and I promised myself I’d come back to it. The step that seemed to be the most complicated was that of Right Livelihood, and as I drifted through New England on a train back to New York from a recent job, it occurred to me once again that every time I earn a dollar I’m engaged in a tangled web of inevitable Wrong Livelihood.

Our world has become such that the days of making a living either in a purely “good” way or a “bad” way are long gone, if they ever really existed. I consider myself a conscientious guy, but aside from the question of whether I am part of the systematic dumbing down of the world – I have worked on some pretty inane things over the years – I have also helped line the pockets of corporations that exploit laborers and widen the gap between rich and poor with little apology.

Yes, I am complicit in this and would be a fool to think otherwise. Just as my tax dollars go to fight wars I don’t believe in, or bail out bankers who defrauded pensioners, we are all involved with everything now. The term “interdependence” is unassailably accurate. Does this mean I am a murderer and a swindler?  Few would consider me such, but I am under no illusion, I am part of that system, and willingly pay into it.

As much as I try to make my living in a “good” way, working on projects I believe have some artistic merit and can tell stories to make us think and feel, it is impossible to earn a clean paycheck. Even if I spent my life doing nothing but free plays about the life of the Buddha, I would be doing so within a system that is ethically fraught with trouble. Would we have to get sponsorship from a corrupt bank in order to pay for the space and the lights? If not a bank, then perhaps a private donor? And where did he or she get their money? And so on, and so on…

As an example, I was recently considered to be the voice for an alcoholic product. I wanted the job, it would have paid a lot and freed me of immediate financial worry. But it occurred to me that alcohol, while legal and consumed by yours truly, can be at the root of a lot of people’s troubles.  Should I encourage the public to knock a few back rather than keep a sober eye on life? Is that “wrong?” It’s hard to say. My mind was made up to accept the job if offered, and nobody would have blinked at my doing the work, I’m sure. More likely, they would have congratulated me on landing such a plum gig.

So where does “Right” start and “Wrong” end? Is it solely with intention? If I behave in a “Right” way in the midst of a “Wrong” way to earn my living, am I morally excused? If I buy my cheap Nikes, made in a sweatshop, but run mindfully, then can I rest easy with my ethical purity?

So far, the best answer I’ve heard from anybody boils down to “you do the best you can given the circumstances,” but I wonder if an activist model is now required, more of a, “you go make changes to the given circumstances” and you don’t stop. Or if that feels like too much, perhaps we can follow Thich Nhat Hahn when he suggests that “Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful.”

I don’t have the solution. But the questions will continue. May we smile as we answer them.

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