Right Balance

When I was growing up, I used to take great comfort from having my homework done. Indeed, I even had a (self-imposed) rule that I would not allow myself to play until after all of my school work was taken care of. This was a discipline that served me moderately well at least until I graduated from college. I remember lying in my dorm room soothing myself to sleep at nights by going over each of my classes in turn and checking off all of the assignments that I had completed that day. Almost invariably I was able to convince myself that I was "caught up" and so allow myself to drift off to sleep.

And then came graduate school. Doing coursework was fine: there were, once again, limited reading assignments and clear paper limits. Orals was another matter, however. No matter how much I had read, it was never enough; my professors always knew more and could always add more items to the list. But this was nothing compared with the dissertation. My life's work (up to that point)! The be-all-and-end-all of examination of my topic! It was impossible to read everything even in a year, never mind in the day or so that I had been accustomed to for finishing a homework assignment. Add to that the anxiety of whether I had ever read enough in the sources, thought of everything that I needed to consider, counted all the manuscripts or looked at all of the images. To keep myself sane, I adopted a discipline that my adviser suggested had worked well for one of her graduate school friends: keep a time card and work only a certain amount per day (six hours, not counting lunch breaks)--and then stop and do something else, for example, spend time with my husband. And, indeed, this discipline worked extremely well for finishing my thesis.

And then came my first teaching job, then the birth of our son, then writing my first book, then the committee work that follows upon tenure...and discipline and balance and comfort went right out the window. Finish my homework? I couldn't even guarantee that I would be ready for class the next day, never mind write something publishable, read yet another stack of files, and get home in time to start on the reading for the next class. What should I do? The first several years, I gave in completely: waking up at 7am, I would be at work by 7:30am. I would then work through until 11pm, not even breaking for lunch and barely for dinner. I had to modify this schedule somewhat when our son was born, but I maintained the sense that if I were not working every minute of the day, regardless of how tired I was or how much I was neglecting my husband, then I was "slacking off," because clearly my homework was not yet done, my book not published, my reputation not made.

You would think that I would let up on myself somewhat once I got tenure, which, to a certain degree, I did. I started fencing with my son the year after I got tenure, thus forcing myself twice and then, within a year or so, three times a week to close the books, get out the door and do something other than work. But there was always a sense that I had that, if I were spending all of this time doing something so frivolous (a.k.a. "not work"), I had better be taking it seriously, too. And so fencing became, as it were, part of my work. My husband begged me every so often to stay home and just be with him, but, no, it was important that I keep the discipline I had established. Plus, how could I relax if I hadn't done my practice for the day?

Not that I had (or have) any illusions about how much work it actually takes to become expert at something like fencing or, indeed, "doing history" (as my father would say). Excellence takes work. But what kind of work? And at what cost? I'm confusing two different things here, I realize. On the one hand, there is the comfort that I take in feeling like I've finished a task, while on the other, there is the fact that it takes time to develop certain skills, build up expertise in a body of knowledge, or finish a book. So how do you take comfort in completing a task when the task itself is having the discipline to do something regularly year after year, in some cases (as, for example, with my profession) with no end in sight other than death? And yet, that is not quite it either. The real burden, I realized last night as I was walking out of my club after a particularly good session at fencing practice, is the belief that somehow it is possible to redeem oneself through work: that if only one does one's work perfectly (completed and on time), then one will somehow be saved--and allowed to go play.

Well, I'm here to tell you: "Hogwash!" Calvin (at least, the colloquial Calvin we have thanks to Weber) was wrong. We cannot redeem ourselves through work, no matter how hard we try. More important, the harder we try to redeem ourselves in this way, the worse in fact our lives will become. I'm not saying this well. I'm out of practice with blogging. I'm also blocking certain things that belong to this story for reasons that I tried to suggest earlier this week. Can I tell you that my husband and I have been working through a major crisis in our marriage? Oh, you already guessed. Can I tell you that one of the single most important things we have learned is that our marriage is more important than anything else? More important than our work, more important than whether we have finished our homework for the day, more important than our obligations (imagined or real) to our co-workers or our respective professional fields. Well, it is. Because without our marriage, none of these things actually matter in the least. In. The. Least.

Oh, but it's going to be hard to change our habits, we both know. How easy it is to say, "Honey, I'll be with you in a moment, I just need to finish reading this chapter/answering this email/grading this paper/writing this blogpost/compiling this code"! How easy it is to make completing our homework more important than simply being together! (Note the "simply" in that last sentence; old habits are hard to break.) How easy it is to confuse doing our work with our purpose in life, which, as we have at long last realized, having gone together through "fire and deep water" this past month, is no more and no less than to love each other and in loving each other, love God. And what does love mean? Again, we knew this all along but had not been able to express it: taking no thought for the morrow, but letting the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day. In other words, stopping work when we get home, not kidding ourselves about how important it is that we finish our homework today when the time for working has passed. Because the work will always be there tomorrow; the time that we might have spent together will not.

As always, Northrop Frye has put it particularly well, but, alas, the book is at work, and the pages I need don't seem to show up in Google books. So I'll paraphrase. Frye's text is the passage from Matthew [6:34]: "Take no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." His point is that living as if always for the morrow, with the thought that the purpose of life is to build up a certain body of work, is to doom ourselves to (in his words) "the bitterest disappointment." If we spend our lives telling ourselves that we will get to play "after"--after we have earned enough money, after we have established ourselves in our field, after we have made ourselves and our work perfect--we in effect spend our lives like the characters Beckett's infamous play, "waiting for Godot." In this address, Frye was talking to graduating seniors about how to maintain their moral compass in the face of the things that they would encounter in life, and that, too, is important. But the thing that struck me--and my husband--when we read it was about balance, living the day for the day with a vision of what actually matters in life.

At this point, what matters more to me than finishing this blog post with a suitable bang is getting ready to meet my husband, along with our son and our dog, for lunch. So I'll stop here. Maybe I'll come back to this thought, maybe not. The important thing is that I be able to distinguish between what feels urgent (e.g. finishing this blog post perfectly now) and what is actually important (spending time with my husband). If you'll excuse me, I have more important things to do.

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