Death, Taxes, and Accountability

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By, Mark C. Coleman

Death and Taxes

In his 1789 letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, a prominent French scientist, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.” This famous quote has been recycled many times over the years, including by author Mark Twain. There are also earlier references to the phrase dating to Edward Ward’s 1724 work, “Dancing Devils” where he wrote “Death and Taxes, they are certain”, and the 1716 quote “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes” written by Christopher Bullock in his 1716 work “Cobler of Preston”.

It is approximately two and a quarter centuries later and there remains much merit to “death and taxes” being the only certainties in life. Even so, while we may have to accept “death and taxes”, they are not by any means the measures by which a life is ultimately weighed or valued. How we choose to spend our time, and the value we bring to this world, are far richer than the taxes we pay, and more determinant to what life is about than death.

A third peg to the certainties of life is personal accountability: how one chooses to expend their time in recognition that the miracle of life is, in itself, a gift to be cherished, enjoyed, and celebrated as much as it is a medium for providing economic utility. To live with a sense of purpose, passion, and balance are the elements of what it means to be accountable to ourselves, and to this generation.

Busyness and Idleness are this Generation’s “Death and Taxes”

Much has been written on humans’ preoccupation to bide time through busyness and idleness. Humans are, at face value, a productive species. We invent, build, maintain, destroy, recreate, and rebuild again in an endless cycle of self discovery and improvement. We are never satisfied. As relentless thinkers and endless tinkerers we like to occupy our time so that we feel useful. But living a life of “usefulness” is open to interpretation. Too often, our “24-7” fast paced busy world consumes our conscious and we forget that we are human. In our hungered draw for attention, we can lose sense with the enormous potential for creativity, innovation, and self-fulfillment that we have.  Yet much of the time we spend here on earth goes against our capacity to be great. We tend to focus on the mundane and minutia of decisions that matter too many, but also cloud this generation’s full potential to create a more sustainable world.

Two hundred years ago, picking up a hammer and nail to build a community center was deemed a very useful endeavor. Today, this would be equally as useful, particularly as many communities suffer from the loss of local assets and infrastructure that provide sense of community, an unfortunate loss for many of our rural places. Today we are more likely to see a packed coffee house as the new center of a community. But, our hammers are iPhones and Blackberry’s, and our nails are our worn down nubs that type bits and bytes of data as quickly as possible to build our virtual houses of information on Facebook, personal webpage’s, and other online repositories of “our life”. While we may feel like a community in our new-age community center, the outcome for many is only a scrapbook of photos and messages mirroring the busyness, idleness, and usefulness of life.

Humans are our own best and worst enemies.  We built Rome, and we destroyed Rome. We learned how to fly, flew around the world, and then far into space. We are always striving for more, better, faster, bigger, greater returns, more progress, higher yields, and quicker service. If inventing the wheel in 3500 BC wasn’t enough, then we had to find more ways to have the wheel do work. If that were not enough, then we had to find a way to have several wheels connect to a trailer and pulled by a horse for the transport of goods. Horses turned out to be too slow, and they smelled! So inventing an engine to give us more horse power was more useful. In time, engines became too dirty and smelly as too many of them infiltrated more usefulness to the world. So, as busy as beavers we are, we invented a hybrid electric powertrain to make our usefulness less wasteful and more efficient. Humans like to keep busy, and useful is better than busy. But being useful all of the time is not always possible. So we make sure we are busy, even if to only appear useful. And the cycle goes on and on.

Busyness is an Occupation

As humans, we are uncomfortable in our own skin. Lions don’t seem as uncomfortable as we do (maybe it is because they know they might have the upper claw on us in a close room). After a kill, lions will shade themselves, nap, and play until their hunger grows within them again. For humans, it seems that our hunger never goes away. Taking a naps, idle resting, and play – those endeavors which take away from busyness, let alone usefulness.

There are those moments, for example, when the day of work is complete, and we finally have time to occupy ourselves with what really matters in life: family, friends, connecting in our communities, or getting in touch with our spirituality. But in these moments, many of us choose more “busyness” as the preferred outlet for our time. After two hundred years we have fully bought into the notion that life is mostly about death and taxes and our hunger for “more” and “better” is never quenched. Why else would we spend so much time worrying about money and keeping busy? Busyness is simply a way to keep our mind from wandering too far out of bounds so that our true spirit and conscious don’t question who we are, why we are here, and what we want to really accomplish in a life well spent. And money, well that is just a medium to keep our minds and bodies fixated on those tasks measured by society that keep us busy and useful.

So what really is “more”, “better”, and “value”? And, what is our purpose for being human? Is our purpose for being humans only to build-up, and then tear down? Or are we here only to feed the chitter-chatter of social media or the “24-7” news cycle? Do we Occupy Wall Street or occupy our own self-interest and individual accountability to address what it means to be alive here and now? What we stand for, and how we live a life with determination and conviction toward realizing our full potential as individuals dedicated to making the world a better place are the calling cards for this generation.

It is far easier in any occupation, including the grandest occupation of all, “life”, to be a member of the chitter-chatter noisemakers that like to point fingers and drive attention, but are short on solutions and collaboration. This is why busy people stay busy. If you are busy, you rarely draw attention. When you step aside from the societal norm of being busy, and draw attention to the issues at hand (a need for this generation to be accountable to ourselves and to future generations), well then you get noisemakers reeling you back into their version of the debate which has to have a protagonist and antagonist to cloud the real issue. Without confrontation there is no issue to debate, to entertain the masses with, and ultimately profit from. In this way, “busyness” sells and makes money, so why not keep the busy minded busy.

Becoming Accountable to Living Life with Purpose, Passion, and Balance

If death and taxes are our measures of life’s certainties, well then, that is just sad. Accountability to living a life well spent should be front and center as we go forward as consumers and citizens who can have profound impact on our individual quality of life, and the sustainability of the world around us. Two days ago I was driving to work, keeping myself busy and useful. The car to the right of me caught my attention. It was a hearse. There was not a funeral procession, and I don’t know if the hearse was carrying anyone deceased or not. But as I drove alongside the a very visible metaphor of death I thought how hearses represent the final BTU’s of energy and last greenhouse gases people will have as an impact our atmosphere, and as they take their final ride before resting. This is unless people choose to be cremated, and then they might have an additional air emissions impact.

This is a morbid and silly thought indeed. But as the hearse turned right and I drove forward the thought seemed right. Our impact on the world begins well before we are born, and endures long after we are gone. It is our responsibility to be accountable to our choices, decisions, and behaviors while we are alive and conscious. We will have a long time to be busy and idle the 9 months leading to birth, and in the years following our death. What we have in-between is a gift like no other. And what we make of it is up to each of us individually. Being accountable is being alive. Death and taxes are the measures of a society determined to be only busy. Let’s choose to make the most of life.

Far more usefulness can occur (and quality of life, profitability, and sustainability) when people are accountable to their individual behaviors than when we continually shift our faults, hopes and dreams, and false promises onto the shoulders of future generations. Today, there are far too many challenges for this generation to address, compounded by decades of entitled behavior across all members of society, for us not to become more accountable citizens and consumers. There is no need to place blame for our woes. The challenges of this generation now runs deeper than any one individual, politician, corporate executive, or government agency.

If a fiscal cliff does not crush this generation, a sustainability cliff will. To address the fiscal cliff we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and choose our destiny, as individuals that can be accountable to our own behaviors, lifestyles, and needs.  By being accountable to who we are, what we need, and how we intend to live a life with purpose, passion, and impact, we can begin to self realize what it means to be sustainable in our daily lives, and with a little hope, for this entire generation.


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