Shakespeare’s famous question “To be or not to be,” has some important psychological insights. The question can be simply whether to commit suicide or not. But to me that is too literal and shallow an interpretation of what this question could mean.
For me, the question has the sense of do I want to embrace my life with all its joys, sorrows, passions, problems, love, and suffering? Or do I choose to turn away from it and allow the many forms of distraction that surround us to avoid living my life?
Do I want to make my own choices, or do I want to follow the herd? There is a quote I love that says, “Do your own thinking or the media will do it for you.” Do I do my own thinking? Do you?
If I pay attention — that is, in itself, quite the task — I see that I have many opinions. For example, I have lots of opinions on the current war raging between Russia and the Ukraine. For instance, I worry about it spreading. But what do I really know? Do I understand the historical context of this war? Have I studied International Relations?
When it comes down to it, I don’t know much at all except I hate seeing all the suffering and misery experienced by so many people.
But in practicing noticing my opinions, I become aware that most of them are ill informed smatterings of what I have heard from other people or the media. I do not even know if I can trust what I am learning from the media.
What this opens for me is that my opinions cause me a lot of misery and as far as I can tell they do not help anyone.
What could I do in a situation I do not understand? Probably not much. But I can think of one thing I could do. I could send a gift to the Red Cross or other groups that are working with refugees. My point is that I could do something helpful and drop the story (opinions) that I have that may or may not be true anyway.
If there is not a positive contribution I can make, then why stress myself out with opinions? These opinions do not help me. They do not help anyone in the war zone. They just make me miserable.
To be, for me, is to do what I can and drop the story. To not be is to get lost in my head. My head is not a good place to get lost in!
To “walk the talk” I just inspired myself to donate to the Red Cross. That feels good. It does not make me miserable.
So, my thought is to be or not to be is a choice to be miserable or not miserable. This is an important choice, because my misery does not simply impact my inner life, but it impacts those that love me and perhaps it reaches even further out.
By that, I mean I believe (but don’t know for sure) that my personal state of consciousness impacts the consciousness of the world. If there is any truly real and lasting solution to the problems that we all face, it is not going to come primarily from political laws and changes. It is going to come from a change in consciousness.
To be, in this sense, is to choose love. To not be in this sense is to live in fear and confusion. I want to live my life from a place of love. It will be a better experience for me, but more importantly, it might help nudge humanity in the direction of greater compassion and wisdom.
The Gospels record Jesus saying: “For what shall it profit a [person], if [they] gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of [their] soul?”
Perhaps the choice to be or not to be is the choice to nurture or not to nurture whatever it is meant by the word soul.
Or perhaps a Buddhist teacher I love, Pema Chodron, makes the point clearer: "Feel the feelings and drop the story."