Siddhārtha Gautama, known as Buddha, once wisely said: “Be where you are; otherwise you will miss your life.” It’s wise, as we can expect from the enlightened one, but our society is absolutely against it — overly passionate about the future or the past but not the present.
From the moment we were born, people have wondered what we will be when we grow up. And everyone had their own opinion on it, but above all, our parents, who shaped our future and put their hopes in us. But the real madness began when we first faced society and its education system that made us compete and introduced us to the idea of the race of life.
It goes like this: We go to kindergarten, where we learn about the basic rules of our society and its culture. Then we go to the first grade, where things get more serious as we are constantly judged and compared with others, and most importantly — we need to pass the scary test at the end of primary education. Then, we go to high school, where we constantly hear that our future is on the line and that we have the last chance to decide what we want to do with our lives. Of course, there is a scary test at the end of high school to validate our choice.
If we somehow get fascinated with the system, we can go to college and continue this play for a couple more years. Finally, after nearly 20 years of education — in the sense that we are not human beings, but merely candidates for humanity, we can join society.
However, in our first job, we quickly discover that we are in a kindergarten yet again — they teach us about the actual world after all our education that appears to be completely useless over there. But there is a promise that if we listen carefully and work hard, we can get a promotion and climb the career ladder, which strangely reminds us of the education system we just went through — what a terrible Deja Vu.
And the moment we realize how silly it is, we’re already caught in the rat race and can’t do much about it. We can complain about this nonsense or get involved and actually compete to get something out of it. Also, as Aristotle once wrote: “Man is by nature a social animal,” which makes us vulnerable mostly because of the need for belonging, resulting in a great FOMO many people have.
We are slightly unaware until a certain age, but we seek acceptance ever since we start to interact with people. And later, society gives us a certain pattern of behavior. There are years when we should have some fun, mature, focus on our career, find a life partner, think of family life, have a house, kids, or whatever. It all differs depending on the culture we are in, but the majority of people actually follow this pattern. In this way, we are in a constant battle between reason and the need for belonging — it takes great courage to go against the flow and say: “It’s not for me. I’ll try something different.”
And in this way, the rat race plays out — by implying that by age X, we should: have a certain degree, job title, salary, savings, investments, or given set of experiences, possessions, or anything else. It’s as if there’s really some perfect age to do something, and we could miss the opportunity. But other people do this, so it must be the right thing to follow. Finally, there is our ego screaming: “It’s silly or not, don’t think about it — do you really want to be left behind, lose with them? You’ll think of it later — now it’s time to race.”
All this shifts people’s attention to the future, giving them some meaning to life and something to strive for. And it’s useful for society — it makes individuals involved in society. But the problem is that certain groups of interest, especially when we live in a postindustrial capitalistic system based on services, play on people’s desires, creating these rat races to profit from them. It’s just as Zhuangzi once said: “The effect of life in society is to complicate and confuse our existence, making us forget who we really are by causing us to become obsessed with what we are not.”
The whole race, as any other race, has one golden rule — you have to run because if you stop, you’ll be left behind. It’s a great trick to keep us involved in the systemic way of living and society — if we just stop and think, we might conclude that it doesn’t make sense. And then we wouldn’t be so vulnerable to all desires that we should do something at this point in life — our value as customers would decrease.
The rat race is a trick that plays on people’s basic needs to make them stuck in thinking of the future, compete and go according to a given pattern, ultimately making them consume as much as possible. And the individual is under enormous social pressure not to even think about withdrawing from the race because that means going against the flow, which results, at least temporarily, in solitude due to a lack of acceptance - society doesn't like people who don't belong.
While, in fact, life has no particular meaning, as Alan Wilson Watts once beautifully said: “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” Therefore when we somehow free ourselves from constantly thinking about the future and recognize the present moment, we suddenly discover that all we have is “here and now” — we are complete and don’t have to race for anything.