Balancing life, and the weight of now
I refuse to be miserable today on the hope of some future reward. The world demands this of us constantly in many ways – the peculiar sub-set of the world we call “academia” especially. But it’s a sucker’s bet. The time for joy is always now. Fulfillment must be a goal sought every day, not a goal to achieve some day; anything less is death by inches.
Yes, we sometimes have to compromise in the short term for the benefit of the long term. Yes, we must make some sacrifices now to get where we want to go. But the future is unwritten: It offers no guarantees; it signs no binding contracts. Compromise too much today for the promise of tomorrow, and what will you have if that promise is not fulfilled? A life filled with compromises and empty promises. When today is too often sacrificed on the altar of tomorrow, tomorrow never comes.
Maybe I have sometimes erred on the side of present happiness over future gain, and in doing so set back my plans and undermined my own goals. Hell, no maybes about it – I surely have, probably more often than I think I have. But I am content that in doing so, I at least erred on the right side of things. Why? Because there’s no assurance that I’ll reach my long-term goals anyway: I could die tomorrow. But if I die tomorrow, I will die having enjoyed my life much more often than not. I will die having done many things I judge worthwhile: having shared life and all its joys with the many people that I like and the few that I truly love; having shared my passion for the pursuit of truths with friends and students and fellow seekers; and having done much more of both – more in quantity, and more in quality – than I would have if I erred in the other direction.
I thought it might be a nice summary of these thoughts to conclude, “I’d rather be an underachiever than unhappy,” but that’s not quite true. Stated that way, baldly and unqualified, it’s just part of the trap that the world lays for us, defining “achievement” in terms that have little to do with fulfillment. Status, title, money – we’re all presumed to value those things, but I truly don’t. Yes, I value stability and the day-to-day satisfaction of my wants and needs, and that’s a lot easier with a long-term employment contract and a decent salary. But loving what I do for a living on a day-to-day basis is much more important to me than the living I make at it – or I wouldn’t have a PhD in Philosophy, of all things! So with the caveat that I haven’t achieved all that I could by the standards of my chosen profession, and moreover that I haven’t achieved all that I could even by the standards of what I actually want from my profession rather than what others might suppose I want from it…
I’d still rather be an underachiever than unhappy.
Yes, I am career-driven. Yes, I am pursuing that nebulous dream, the ideal tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in congenial surroundings. But I’m not making myself miserable on a day-to-day basis in pursuit of that goal: I often work only 40-50 hours a week instead of 60-70, and I don’t spend as much time keeping up with the literature and working on my pubs as I should. There are other things I should be doing right now instead of composing this meditative essay to cast out upon the ether.
Yet here I am, thinking out loud and sharing my thoughts instead of analyzing an argument or refining a publication or prepping for class or grading some papers. I am content with that choice, because I live here and now, not in that nebulous, hoped-for future. Of course, I don’t just hope for that future; I work for it, often and hard. I wouldn’t have a PhD if I didn’t work for the future. But I try not to work for it so much that I forget to live here and now, nor to work for it so little that I undermine the chances for its realization. It helps that I genuinely enjoy most of that work most of the time, but even so – it’s a balancing act, and I know I don’t always find the right balance. But if I must tilt one way or another, I know which way I’d rather tilt…
Because I refuse to be miserable today on the hope of some future reward. The time for joy is always now. Anything less is death by inches.