It’s a simple question that Ari and I have started asking one another.
It began sometime in the last couple weeks, when the endless days of stay-at-home led to endless sessions of staring at our phones, scrolling through news and social media feeds.
Some of that was worthwhile. It is, for example, how we follow the developments in the Black Lives Matter protests and encounter the voices we need to hear (such as those I shared last week). But, inevitably, the apps and websites do what they are designed to do: they keep our attention far longer than needed for engaging with the information we mean to. It’s not easy to purposefully use the internet as a tool, when many of those who populate it build businesses based on using us as a tool for selling advertising.
Ari and I decided to help each other. Now, when one of us sees the other doing what appears to be the endless scroll, he asks, “Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?” Sometimes the answer is yes, and we continue reading the article that really seems worth our time. More often than not, the answer is no. So we put the phone down.
Even after just a few days, I started to hear the question in my head…
- Mindlessly playing an addictive game on my iPad instead of getting started on dinner. (Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?)
- Watching yet another YouTube drawing tutorial instead of writing a blog post. (Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?)
- Falling for clickbait like “Nine Design Mistakes You Won’t Believe” instead of doing morning yoga. (Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?)
It’s easy to ask the question (or hear it) sarcastically, as a passive aggressive instruction to stop rather than a helpful reminder to correct course. But when used generously and sincerely, the question is a gift: it invites the responder to consider their own motivations. I think most of us are much more likely to change our behavior when we choose something different ourselves. Others can help us (or the voice in our heads can help us) notice what we’re doing, thereby making that choice possible.
I’m finding the question useful in less trivial decisions as well. Over the weekend I spent a few hours drafting blog post (intended for publishing today) that discusses the Black Lives Matter movement and the work of allyship many of us are feeling called to do in response. I wrote and edited, sought out sources and compared thoughts, revised and had Ari review the draft. But something didn’t sit right with me about the post, so I asked myself, “Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?”
Though I think I still stand behind the content I’d written and may use pieces for another post someday, I realized by asking myself this question that I didn’t like how I’d written it. But the “how” has an impact on others, and that is part of the “what” that I’d be doing by publishing the piece. The draft is needlessly antagonistic, judgmental instead of generous, and promotes a strategy that I have yet to put into practice myself. It is a piece perhaps that I needed to write, but not necessarily one that others need to read. By putting it out into the world, I would be contributing to “the conversation” in a way that I don’t actually like, in a way that’s not really the best use of my role. And that is something I don’t want to be doing. So I wrote this post instead.
That’s another benefit of the question: it challenges us to imagine alternative possibilities. I think this is where the seemingly simple question could be most useful on a societal level.
In this particular moment, many Black and Brown voices are calling our country to live up to its ideals, and they are doing so by pointing out the way certain systems fail to make those ideals a reality for large portions of the population. That is one point of the protests. They are holding a mirror to those of us who are privileged enough to be insulated from the relevant issues, saying, “Look at this system of policing (for example) that you’ve taken for granted. Do you see the way it institutionalizes “reasonable” use of violence? Do you see the way it takes good people and makes them commit atrocities? Do you see the way it disproportionately uses force on people of color? Do you want to be doing what you’re doing?”
More and more, people are answering no. We do not want to be doing what we’re currently doing when it comes to policing. Hence the proliferation of plans for reforming or defunding the police, for investing in other forms of community-based care and public safety.
By asking ourselves the question of whether we want to be doing what we’re doing, we notice more of the consequences of our actions, and we open our imaginations toward doing something different.