Sunday, April 07, 2013

On having it all vs. making sacrifices

General Conference was this weekend, and as usual the speakers provided a great deal of food for thought. I'm looking forward to the chance to read the talks when they're printed, as I've found I get different things out of a talk depending on whether I hear it or read it.

It's wonderfully odd how your brain tends to collate or synchronize the things you see or read in unexpected ways. Sometimes they're mere trifles -- as yesterday, when I got thinking about whether Gene Kelly knew he was making movie history while performing the "Singin' in the Rain" number, and later that evening when I happened to catch a parody version of that number in a completely unrelated film. Then sometimes there's greater significance to such experiences.
Just recently I read an article discussing/debating the various advances made in Western feminism. (I don't identify as a feminist, but I realize this is a luxury that exists only because early feminists worked hard to make sure ideas once considered radical -- universal suffrage, equal pay for equal work, access to work opportunities regardless of sex, legal protections from habitual and institutionalized workplace harassment -- are now thought of as merely common sense.) This article made reference to the popular trope, particularly common in Western feminism, that an individual can somehow "have it all" in life. I've long harbored doubts about how accurate that trope is -- maybe because I've never met anyone, female or male, who was wholly successful at obtaining that state of being.  I have met many people who are still chasing the "have it all" dream in the prime of their lives, who are restless and discontented with their lot and who constantly feel they're missing out on some crucial ingredient that will bring on the package-deal happiness they think they should have achieved by now.

And then came Conference, with a number of talks touching on the Christian doctrine of sacrifice, which got me thinking about the difference between making sacrifices and "having it all." The commonality I've noticed about almost everyone I know chasing the "have it all" dream is that, although many of them are willing to work hard, very few seem to understand the nature of sacrifice -- that is, giving something up to achieve something else they want more.  I guess technically you can have it all, if you're willing to embrace the certainty that it will all be slipshod and mediocre -- since you'll never be able to devote the time and energy to achieve excellence in any one area. (While polymaths do exist, they are exceptionally rare, and even the so-called Renaissance men had their particular areas of focus and expertise.) And the desire to "have it all" too often seems to be accompanied by the attendant expectation that other people must work their tails off to make this fairy-tale-like state of being possible.

But if you aspire to true greatness in any given arena, it requires personal sacrifice. It means recognizing that you must relegate some of the other potential paths of your destiny, the things you could be or do, to the status of hobbies or of dreams to be achieved later in life, in order to pursue one or two Great Things. It means that, as an adult, you stop grasping at every passing whim and begin acting deliberately to choose and shape your destiny. It means accepting the fact that your time on earth is limited, and learning to work with it instead of pretending you will live forever. It's part of what I believe is an inescapable aspect of humanity's dual nature -- as infinite spirits, we wish to pursue everything that interests us; as physical beings, we have a finite amount of time in which to achieve the things we desire. So life constantly comes down to a question of triage -- of deciding what is most important to you and imposing your focus on that, rather than running around endlessly dabbling and dilettanting (is that a word? well, 'tis now!) and never taking the needed time to make any one discipline come to full fruition.

This has been a hard-won concept, and I'm still thinking about it, struggling with it. It's hard to overcome cultural programming. The good news is this: if you've taken the decision to focus on a specific pursuit, that decision brings with it a measure of serenity and happiness that, as far as I can tell, never obtains from running endlessly on the "having it all" hamster wheel.


Tara Chang said...

I think you hit the nail on the head re: the paradox of our infinite natures trying to come to terms with this linear, finite experience... Makes for all kinds of inexplicable frustration.

Paradoxes....crazy making!

Soozcat said...

I've edited this entry just a bit because I read over it again and realized it might be construed as castigating people in their teens and twenties who haven't settled on what they want to do with their lives. That wasn't at all what I intended. The teens and twenties are the perfect time of life to try many things out before you come to a decision. I was originally thinking about people my age -- folks in the prime of their lives who have never settled on pursuing any one thing because they've fallen for the pipe dream of doing everything. True polymaths are extremely rare, and even they have their specific areas of expertise.