Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Virtue and Happiness

Life is all about balance. The ancients defined happiness (loosely translated) as virtue - and virtue is attained through balancing desire with clear thought. In other words, the blind and reckless pursuit of happiness driven by desire will not bring happiness and, consequently, virtue. Although I have always admired the virtuous and would say that at some level of consciousness it is a quality worth striving for, it never was my aim. Indeed, I never saw it as a quality that need be built; one either had it or didn’t. And I always believed I did. My pursuit, however, was happiness - driven by passion and desire. Balance was not part of the equation.

But it has turned out that the regulation of passion with clear thought is the only way to attain lasting happiness. Virtue is the result of acting responsibly and happiness has become not just the acquisition of that which makes me happy, but from a careful and often precarious balancing act. My wants do not define my needs – ever, however, the confusion between want and need drove me right to the gates of insanity. Pursuing my every want without regard to consequence, though I was often successful in attaining what I sought, never rendered long-term happiness; it only left me “needing” more. There was no balance.

I used to manage my time around my leisure for I thought that was where my happiness could be found. My wants never included the necessary effort to acquire those things I wanted; yet I would chase them regardless. I wanted the result, not the effort. I wanted the afterglow, not the sweat. As much effort I put into attaining happiness, it always proved, at best, fleeting and elusive. My perspective was such that when I was necessarily busy (with important things, not busy doing nothing), I felt as though I was not enjoying myself – that I was not experiencing happiness. So warped was my outlook that I could find little satisfaction in a job well done and consequently I tended to ignore the link between earned leisure and the effort that created it.

That perspective no longer blurs my vision. It didn’t happen overnight, but prominent and life-altering events serendipitously occurred in my life such that the only way forward was to look back. Nothing much in the world has changed, the same can be said of the “stuff” that my life is made of, but life is different today. Enumerating the various and sundry details could (and probably will) fill a book, but the little epiphanies along the way are easily enough recorded in real time. The essence of this one is not entirely new, but it’s not exactly a re-run either.

As a grad student and a teaching associate (TA), I am arguably busier than I have ever been before. More than last semester, more than as an undergraduate, more than any time I can recall in the last several years at least. My leisure time is not abundant – I find it in little chucks along the way. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, sometimes I know when it is coming, but it is always welcome. I schedule and plan on the things I have to do - my responsibilities, but I am not perfect; I still have a procrastination streak a mile wide. The tasks I am charged with today, however, cannot be done “just in time.” These are, for the most part, long-term tasks that will not be completed unless started well before they are due. Like weeks before…

But that’s not the epiphany, not a new one anyway. It is more the idea that I am no longer “scheduling” my work. Work is always on the schedule; it is the default condition. It's the leisure time that is penciled in – and often subsequently erased. I am no longer staring at my calendar looking at gaps and how to fill them… I am looking for gaps, filling them is never a problem. There’s more to it than that, though. My changed perspective makes work (either as a grad student or as a TA) a rewarding experience in and of itself – it needs no pay-off; it is its own reward. But that is an entirely different nugget for some other time. Maybe the next time I can carve out a little leisure time.

1 comment:

Snaggle Tooth said...

As someone who just went 14 months until now without one whole week of free days- I totally empathize with this need for self time!
Tough to feel happy without the freedom at times...
Peace to you soon, Buzy Bee!