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There is a danger inherent in the living of the days of which our lives consist that’s not easily seen. It’s insidious in the way it affords a superficial kind of comfort that all too easily lulls us.
I’m speaking of coasting.
A given day of one’s existence brims with plenty of claims on our attention: work, financial obligations, tending the relationships that matter to us and comprehending the swirl of events in our culture and on the world stage. It’s no small accomplishment when one has attained sufficient mastery of these to approach bedtime each night without chaos as a backdrop.
But it’s not enough.
Certainly, there’s no wisdom in deliberately seeking inconveniences and sources of confusion, but there’s an unease that gnaws at us when amusement and disappointment are the bookends marking our range of response to what life presents us with. We sense something deeper is going on that’s eluding us.
Recently, I have noticed a backlash against the meme that had prevailed for several decades, namely, that determining one’s passion is the best route to making a career decision. It seems to me that most of the deflating of that notion leaves important things unsaid. Yes, one should enter the world of work pretty much wherever one finds an opportunity.
But, once hired somewhere, one should train his powers of observation on every element of his environment. These elements would include not only the skills and knowledge of a particular field one is acquiring, but clues about human nature one gleans from interaction with anyone with whom one is in contact. The deepest kind of passion is found when a little wisdom is acquired.
It’s so easy to applaud one’s own courage for having married one’s sweetheart, learned a trade and clothed and fed one’s children. A life so constructed is no small accomplishment.
Still, if one is at all attentive, he or she will discern an internal prodding, an unsatisfied thirst for meaning and contour that insists on being addressed. The question that will not be ignored is this: Have I made full use of my freedom?
I often wonder why the word “freedom” doesn’t show up more often than it does in discussions of public policy, culture or personal decision-making. I think it’s because freedom is actually kind of scary.
The great literary critic Lionel Trilling spoke of “making a life.” He was speaking of the art of making peace with one’s tradeoffs, and foreseeing what later phases of one’s life are going to entail. This means really looking at what one’s values and mapping a course based on that. You’re comfortable with taking this road and not that because you have looked sufficiently into what you deem important.
The temptation is great to hand off this task. Certainly, the amusement served up by our bread-and-circuses culture can lull one into permitting distraction to take center stage in one’s thoughts.
Eventually, though, circumstances will insist that one look at how one defines such basics as health, security and fulfillment. A side phenomenon will begin to manifest itself as well: The old amusements no longer distract as effectively as they once did.
There are entire industries that cater to this point of existential unease. Therapists, organizers of retreats, self-help authors all offer to assist with this juncture, employing varying degrees of formula.
And remember: The state will gladly handle this for you. If you’d rather not shape your life, or even determine what is essential for your self-respect, leviathan will handle it for the price of your uniqueness.
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