Saturday, May 12, 2012

Something to do

Having finished grad school, I suddenly went from a lot of goal-focused behavior to hardly any. Drifting around the house, I thought about the ways each of us in the household focus our behavior. Rick is the founder of two small businesses and spends probably 80 hours a week working at them. He does do things for fun, but they are deliberately subtracted from work time, not the other way around. Alice is in a long-distance relationship, which I remember as a state of killing time: everything you do has a feeling of “until”, waiting for those weekends that light up the rest of your life. Suzie works part-time as a midwife, and in the rest of her time she does the small things she enjoys: watching costume dramas, maintaining the house, knitting a pair of Christmas socks for everyone in the extended family.

I'm reading Yann Martel's The Life of Pi, in which a zookeeper's son reflects that captive animals are not unhappy like people think:

Being denied “freedom” too long, the animal becomes a shadow of itself, its spirit broken. So some people imagine.

This is not the way it is.

Animals in the wild live lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving social hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low.... One might even argue that if an animal could choose with intelligence, it would opt for living in a zoo, since the major difference between a zoo and the wild is the absence of parasites and enemies and the abundance of food in the first, and their respective abundance and scarcity in the second. Think about it for yourself. Would you rather be put up at the Ritz with free room service and unlimited access to a doctor or be homeless without a soul to take care of you?

This doesn't jibe with my understanding of animal psychology. I have relatives who have reached a kind of peace with their golden retriever by realizing that dogs, especially urban dogs kept indoors most of the time, want purposeful activity. They're born to be in relationship with other pack members (whether other dogs or humans) but also to hunt or herd or fetch. It's why collies herd basketballs, why well-fed terriers go crazy over squirrels. It's why this family's golden retriever doesn't destroy things so often now that they hide objects for him to find. Given a challenge, he's a more satisfied creature.

And what are we born to do?

It's clear that desperate goal-driven activity is not fun. Feeling you must work every moment to keep your business afloat, or to put food on the table, or to avoid predators is not a good feeling. And yet a life with no goals makes us bored and frustrated. I've greatly enjoyed my last two weeks of unemployment, but when I first moved to Boston and had been job-hunting for months, I ran out of puttering that I wanted to do. I asked Rick and Suzie to stop cooking dinner so much so that I could have some task to look forward to.

Grad school was too much activity. I'm looking forward to having a job, along with other things to do, that strike the right balance of purpose and relaxation.

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