What Do You Do?

June 2, 2011

I may have mentioned here before that since I gave up being employed by institutions, people ask me what I do with myself nowadays, a question I find hard to answer. It’s not that I don’t know what I do with myself, or that I’m uncertain about what I’m attempting; it’s rather that I don’t find it easy to explain to persons who are in the habit of having their tasks defined by others.

We generally fail to face a basic truth about ourselves. As social creatures most of us, during most of our lives, sell life for money. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. We have to do it. But necessity doesn’t change the reality that the habitual selling of self leads us to think of our tasks as activities others set up for us. Consequently, they are not distinctive; they can’t be distinctive. If you’re a second baseman in the major leagues and you field a grounder, there is only one thing you can do with the ball. You throw it to first base so it will get there before the runner arrives. You are playing by the rules, and they are not your rules in the sense that you made them up. If you choose not to play by the rules, you don’t get to be a second baseman for very long.

It’s true, of course, that many of us come to enjoy what we do during the time we’re selling ourselves. And when that happens it’s a good thing. It’s hard to imagine a second baseman who wouldn’t get a surge of satisfaction from throwing out a runner at first. Still, it’s not a task he constructed for himself. He adopted it rather than built it.

Tasks of this sort, enjoyable or not, are secondary tasks. Calling them secondary doesn’t mean they’re not important. They are often very important. But they, by themselves, are not primary or fundamental.

The sadness of the human race is that relatively few of its members ever construct their fundamental tasks.

The fundamental task is a life project, chosen and worked out by oneself alone. It is the endeavor that defines the self and gives it meaning. It is usually difficult to name because nobody ever made up a name for it. It is usually extremely complex because it is composed of numerous elements coming together in a pattern that stands apart from all other patterns. It is, you might say, unique, if you’re in the mood to use a word I’m coming less and less to like.

So, when you have got past the time of selling portions of your life and have moved on to the fundamental task, and then somebody asks you what you do nowadays, what do you say if you wish to be truthful?

You know that your questioner is expecting some anodyne response, such as that you’re working on your stamp collection, or planning a new room for your house. It’s an extremely rare questioner who is prepared to listen to an honest answer. Knowing this, what do you do?

There's no good answer and I’m not going to try to offer one here. I just want to make the point that answering truthfully, even to yourself, is difficult.

People don’t want to admit to themselves that they are aimless wanderers, trying a little of this and a little of that, in an attempt to avoid pain and find an occasional moment of pleasure (please don’t take this as an implication that I scorn moments of pleasure; nothing could be more false that that). But comfort and small pleasures are not seen to be enough, and that’s because they are not enough. They cannot wholly make up the fundamental task.

Maybe it’s too idealistic to expect many people to work out fundamental tasks. Maybe they are rare experiences reserved for even more rare persons. That could be the case. But if it is, I don’t like it.

The advice given to young persons at graduations and other similar events is usually sappy, with the injunctions to discover self or “find your bliss.” The fundamental task has very little to do with bliss, and it is not a matter of discovery as much as it is of construction. It’s work that requires genuine thought, and not just adopting thought from someone else. If you want to work yourself up into an integrated person, you’re not going to do it overnight, and you’re not going to do it easily. Neither can it be done without some wrong turns, and, therefore, many corrections. Still, it appears to be what a person ought to try for, understanding fully that it will probably produce some alienation from others, perhaps even the loss of good friends.

For whatever reason, humans don’t seem to be built for meaninglessness. They covet meaning, and when they fail to find it, the result is a vast and vacant sadness.

©John R. Turner

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