This post is not for the relentlessly ambitious, nor is it for those who feel no driving need to accomplish any particular thing in this life. This post is for the rest of us: The ones who feel like we should be out “living life” when we’re buried deep in our work. The same ones who suffer the nagging pressure to get back to work when doing anything that isn’t work. (We know who we are.)
So, if like me, your Sisyphean attempts to push that rock (novel, start-up, thesis) up the hill find you second-guessing your every move and feeling guilty about both what you’re doing and what you’re not doing, read on.
My personal guilt cycle goes something like this:
- I’m not getting any younger.
2. I need to finish editing this book.
3. There’s more to life than this damn book.
4. I should be _______ (Fill in the blank with any of the fun, groovy activities I’m not doing because I’m always editing the book.)
5. I should really be working on the next book.
6. I’m not getting any younger.
When the guilt cycle hits high spin, it’s not pretty.
Some people blame the human penchant for guilt on centuries of the Judeo-Christian work ethic, but when it comes to guilt about time, I blame the aphorism.
Aphorisms are those pithy little observations that are said to impart a general truth. But even the briefest glance at a list of common aphorisms reveals their tendency to mind-boggling contradiction:
Look before you leap. / He who hesitates is lost.
The more the merrier. / Two’s company, three’s a crowd.
Stop and smell the roses. / Keep your nose to the grindstone.
Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile. / Give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself. (In that case, better give him the inch first.)
And then there’s the mother of all contradictory aphorisms: Live each day as if it were your last.
It sounds so lofty, so noble, doesn’t it? But like a salted caramel latte laced with chocolate, it’s packed with guilt. Taunting us that it’s not enough to muddle through each day, doing the best we can with some mundane blend of work, chores, errands, and goofing off. Live-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last, like a cop with a heavy nightstick, lays on the pressure: Are you having the most amazing, profound life you can? Or are you just taking up oxygen?
If I were truly living today as if it were my last, I would begin with a huge stack of blueberry pancakes, spend the morning browsing bookstores, and then pick one of those tomes to enjoy over a cup of good java at my favorite café. After lunch (a sizeable slab of cheesecake) on the rooftop deck of the local bistro, I’d relax in a hot tub with my husband and enjoy a couples massage. I’d cap it all off with a night of dancing and a bottle of Italian red.
It would indeed be a great DAY, but I have some serious doubts about it making a great LIFE.
Recently, in the throes of this dilemma (while folding the laundry—a compromise—it’s not editing the book, but it’s not goofing off either), I paused long enough to see an interview with Frances Fox Piven on MSNBC’s The Last Word. It was a moment of clarity: Eighty-three years young, Fox Piven has spent her life fighting the good fight. Talking to Lawrence O’Donnell, she radiated strength, humor, intelligence, and stamina. Watching her, I thought: She is exactly what I hope to be.
Now, I can’t say what Fox Piven’s life has been, but here are a few of the known facts:
- She is a professor of political science and sociology at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
- She grew up in Queens, attended P.S. 148, earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., all from the University of Chicago—a scholarship student, she waited tables to make ends meet.
- She has served on the board of the ACLU and held office in various professional associations including the Society for the Study of Social Problems.
- She’s written books galore including Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America.
- She has devoted her life to social activism and made significant contributions to social theory.
All this sounds glamorous. A life of exclamation points. But I strongly suspect that a woman who says, “I believe in the necessity for struggle by people at the bottom of any society,” is no stranger to roadblocks, frustration, setbacks, and uncertainties. To work for social justice is to take on the Hydra whose heads multiply by a factor of ten for every one slain. One just rolls with it. All of it.
And rolling with life—all of it—may be the antidote to guilt. Guilt eats our energy, leaves us doubting, renders us unable to fully engage with whatever we’re doing (yes, even if what we’re doing is playing online solitaire).
Instead of always feeling guilty for what we think we should be doing, or what we fear we’re neglecting, or what we might have accomplished by now, I think it may be enough to just be. To say, at the end of the day: I had a day, and with any luck I’ll have another tomorrow.
Imagine the possibilities for happiness in that.
As Pete Seeger (by way of Ecclesiastes) wrote:
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven.