(two posts dated 2010, a couple years after I got married but before my son was born. posted as-were, as it were; i wouldn’t write it this way anymore, and reading it gives me that ol’ familiar red-pen-itch, plus a weird sadness (was i always so angry?). but… –wa.)
Compromise and happiness.
Married couples learn to compromise out of necessity, but the scope of this necessity tends to be misunderstood. Compromise is often thought of as an invasion or reduction of personal sovereignty: the up-front price of a marriage’s survival. But in the long run compromise isn’t ‘judged’ correct or successful. Rather, the act of compromise is itself the substance of a successful relationship, which after all consists of (and is expressed in terms of) nothing more than the actions of those within it. Such category errors are common. You might say they’re the most human thing about us.
Some youngsters fear to take naps or relax, thinking they’ll miss out on ‘what’s happening.’ But napping doesn’t recharge you for work or play, it is itself a component of both, just as rests and silence are essential components of music. ‘What’s happening’ is nothing more than: rest. Adults who conceive of ‘me time’ as a vacation from the imposition and inconvenience of marriage make the same error. Time to oneself isn’t a break from the hard work of a relationship, it’s an essential component of it, and spouses who treat time apart as ‘a break from the marriage’ only stress the marriage further, by defining it implicitly or explicitly as the opposite of vacation, or of fun.
The same goes for office meetings and solitary work, or for standardized tests and individual study: the various parts of the job must share a purpose in order to be successful. Students aren’t given detailed feedback on their SAT performance, so the test stands outside the ongoing learning process, indeed it temporarily arrests that process. (Student skill mastery can only be reliably tested in situ, i.e. the best way to know whether you can solve chemistry problems is to solve chemistry problems, not recite vocabulary words.) Meanwhile, the effectiveness of office meetings increases dramatically when workers conceive of them as team work rather than mere institutional obligation. If a meeting is not ‘checking in’ but ‘working face-to-face,’ workers are less likely to shift into passive ‘meeting mode’ when the group is called to order, and can maintain their solitary intensity in the group setting. It’s the shift in intensity that’s costly and prone to malfunction.
The same goes for relationships, of course. If lovers can be honest with one another when they’re together then they can experience the full joy of being apart without assuming that they’re incurring some cost to the relationship. The leering alpha-cretin’s barroom refrain: ‘If only I were still single, y’know what I mean dude?’ The bitterness in his voice is real, but the problem isn’t being one thing or the other. The problem is that he imagines himself as something other than he is, and judges his experience in categorical rather than experiential terms. Of course married men also enjoy themselves in bars, and children wake from naps refreshed, and workers even return to their cubicles with a spring in their step.
Prerequisite to such happiness is the simple but difficult act of abandoning one’s illusions: I could not have been other than I am. I need to be away from you today so that I can be with you tomorrow, the next day I will carry into solitude the memory of our fellowship, what I am flows from what I do rather than vice versa, and no time is uncoupled from any other. John Lennon said something about life happening to us when we’re making other plans, but he had it wrong: life does not happen to you. It is only what you get up to, planning or acting or otherwise. If you compromise in order to be happy later you will never be happy. As someone or other said, be happy in your work (of love, art, labour, learning, etc.). Step one is accepting what you’re really doing and getting on with it. There is no step two. Joy is honesty.
Let’s let the idea of ‘killing time’ stand in for the full sweep of modern American cultural thought, shall we?
Americans are raised to believe in the sanctity of work and so forth, but also to be suspicious of people who do nothing but work. The label of ‘workaholic’ combines both admiration and derogation, and adults are expected to maintain a ‘healthy work/life balance,’ as if work were somehow separate from ‘real life,’ whatever that means. Moreover, most adults have at some point responded to the question ‘What are you up to today?’ with a shrugging dismissal: ‘Nothing much.’ In the American language it’s possible to be awake, eat, use the restroom, even walk around town or read a book, yet still ‘do nothing.’ This phrase subtly denigrates solitary reflection and ‘idle’ thought, but such disparagement is reinforced throughout our culture. (The Dutch ride bicycles upright, so as to look around at their cities and countrysides; Americans put on athletic pants and ride quickly with their heads down, so as ‘get somewhere,’ or worse yet, ‘just go for a ride.’)
And so we find ourselves killing time: struggling to fill the minutes or hours between scheduled or anticipated activities. ‘I have three hours to kill,’ we say, and our intonation depends on our attitude — not toward time as such, but toward the actions we imagine we’re going to take in that time. We even reserve a class of actions for ‘dead time’ — the space in our daily schedule not yet full with appointments. Such ‘time-wasters’ or ‘downtime activities’ are less honorable than proper action — picking up trash for one minute (during a TV commercial, say) doesn’t count as ‘real cleaning’ unless it’s part of an hourlong string of such maintenance tasks.
The same dynamic is readily observed in American sexual culture. The adulterer convinces himself that his transgression is ‘only sex’ and not, say, lovemaking (‘I told you, dear, she doesn’t mean anything to me’); the closeted fundamentalist preacher can have sex with his male meth dealer without believing himself a homosexual; more benignly, young lovers go on weekly dates but insist they ‘aren’t dating.’ This self-delusion stems from something like the intentional fallacy: if we don’t ‘mean’ what we’re doing, it doesn’t ‘count.’ The delusion serves to defend against true recognition of our acts, which would induce guilt and despair.
Yet the delusion itself obviously isn’t doing us any favours.
Many (if not most!) Americans are evidently unhappy, but so much modern experience consists of avoiding unhappiness — or at least putting off confronting it — rather than ensuring happiness. It’s widely known that working in a focused way for long stretches of time on tasks we believe in produces feelings of peace and fulfillment. The arbitrary segmentation of each day into ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ and ‘play time’ and ‘downtime’ and ‘free time’ necessitates jarring mental shifts, which damage our focus (and in turn our serenity). But this segmentation alone is bearable; plenty of people benefit from sticking to a schedule and so forth. Rather, it’s the belief that some times, some actions, are more ‘real’ or meaningful than others — our belief that some time deserves killing — that leads to despair, because when we review the work of the day we can no longer hide behind the false distinction between what we’ve done and what we meant by it. If you work for two hours and end up ‘killing’ three, do you count it a successful work day with periods of waste? Or a ‘lazy’ day in which you managed a little work?
Is a school day ‘busy’ if fully 30% of it is brief idle periods separating distinct work practices and environments? Can that possibly be the optimal use of a child’s vitality?
Taking a nap is a specific, conscious use of time rather than a failure to use it, ‘killing time’ is a conscious decision to perform a specific action — just like going to work, reading a book, plucking a chicken, painting a portrait, or sleeping around. ‘If you choose not to decide / You still have made a choice,’ the man said, and the time we kill is as much a part of our life as the time we fill. We go on dying at the same rate, regardless.
But never you mind! These are only idle thoughts. You haven’t really read them and, honestly, I didn’t mean even a word. I feel better. Do you feel better.