Our consumer culture idealizes the person of action, or at least so it is thought. But as with so many facets of contemporary life, the substance has been eviscerated while the superficial elements alone remain. Our idea of action is nothing more than motion, and somehow we think that we are doing something merely by moving around a lot. Our busyness is not even busy, only hurried and harried.
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late.
Our acts our angels are, or good or ill,
Our fatal shadows that walk by us still.
You may have experienced a forced break in the frenetic pace of life that might have felt like death--and so you found something to fill the void. We occupy a world with more distraction and entertainment than at any time in history and yet boredom is rampant, and greatly feared.
How many times a day do you see somebody enjoying a meal or a cup of coffee alone, peacefully, without their smartphone in front of their face?
Yet all this motion and artificial occupation, which are energetically expensive, lead mostly to nowhere. The time and energy just flit away, leaving no trace but the cost.
How many of your meetings are like this? How much of your time on social media? The trouble is that whenever something isn't pleasant, it feels like work. It doesn't have to be miserable, just something less than what you would call leisure if you were asked. If I inquired what you would do on your ideal vacation, I imagine "looking at cat memes" and "arguing about immigration policy on Facebook" would not make your Top 10.
It seems I am not alone in this insidious subconscious trap where I get tricked into doing nothing while feeling like I am doing something. It has been challenging to fight this temptation, and I frequently lose, but my journaling habit helps keep me honest--it is the record of the thoughts and intentions and anxieties behind the action (or inaction) that casts those Fatal Shadows which follow me wherever I go.
What does it mean, then, to act?
If motion does not equate to action, we must define action. When talking about individuals and their actions, I prefer to think of action as that which originates within an individual, as opposed to inaction, which isn't action at all, and reaction, which originates as a response to external stimulus.
It may be the case that Free Will is merely phenomenal, that it doesn't really exist. But even though it may not be real, you must live out your daily life in the world of apparent freedom of will that you seem to have. True action, that is, original action, and not reflex or reaction, takes for granted that Free Will is real. It pretends it is not the victim of a chain of events kicked off by the Big Bang. It may be a lie, but it is a fruitful lie. Though if it is indeed fruitful, perhaps it indicates a deeper truth for which we lack proper theory and explanation. Perhaps our own Free Will is the article of faith most needed in our trying times.
For if you rest solely on evidence and probability of success, you will never take any action at all. You will cower in your 'protected corner,' reacting only out of self-preservation.
But what are you preserving?
Your Fatal Shadows are cast by your genuine action; you are ultimately defined as an individual not by the incidental facts surrounding your brief existence, because those details are not unique in any meaningful sense, but only different. What you do from within will define you and follow you around--maybe for good, maybe for bad, but you cannot know the outcome in advance.
Much worse to cast no shadow at all.
Much worse to reach the end of your productive life only to nostalgically recall your great plans and dreams, all of the things you would have done had only the circumstances been more favorable.
Look at the shadow you are casting now. If it isn't the same as the image in your dreams, then you have only two real options: action or surrender--the odyssey of the hero, or the retreat of the coward.