Monday, September 05, 2011

Altruism as justification for hedonism

I've never been able to prioritize well. I just sleep less and hope for the best.

But this year has been especially frenetic. Unlike in previous years, when all my free time was consumed by hanging out with friends doing things like bowling, drinking and talking, a bit of yoga and meditation, but generally just undirected laying about, this year has been fundamentally different. This is the year I woke up and realized my life was almost half over, and that, despite wanting to make significant societal contributions, my gifts had thus far consisted of money spent at bars, restaurants and clothing retailers. To be fair, I have contributed somewhat on the job, as the nature of my work is ostensibly to help improve state government. But, given that my coworkers are all entering the child rearing, generative phase of their lives, I was feeling sorely lacking.

So, acknowledging the guilt I was feeling, I sucked it up. I made (somewhat-- though perhaps not sufficiently--successful) efforts to address the flaws in my approach to work, as identified by my bosses. When a professor/mentor/colleague/friend called to recommend I apply for the redistricting advisory committee, I did. When my meditation teacher asked me to join a group of experienced practitioners in leading sessions, I agreed to participate. When another friend suggested I join the event planning committee for a homeless services agency fundraiser, I embraced it. When two friends from grad school contacted me about raising our school's profile and better engaging alumni, I enthusiastically agreed to help build a better organization. And, like always, I continued to volunteer when friends needed help.

But did I stop bowling? (Maybe just a little, for redistricting.) Did I stop eating out every other meal? (No, in fact, due to my even busier schedule, I probably eat out more now.) Did I stop imbibing just a little too much? (Heck no.) Did I curtail my shopping trips? (Only a smidgen.) Did I graciously but responsibly reject party invitations? (It is hilarious that I would voice this question, even rhetorically.)

However, today I am reminded of a moment back in February when I felt internal consternation at the hedonistic tenor my life had taken on, and I realize that I've only addressed half the problem. This is in large part due to my philosophy that good works entitle a person to good times. And so, like always, I've maintained a commitment to most every other thing in my life, and I've been unwilling to forgo a lot of the fun stuff. I continue to operate according to the opinion that, given my lack of direct responsibility to individuals (i.e. children, spouse), I shouldn't have to sacrifice fun for helping others.

(BTW, looking for volunteer opportunities in October!)

I might be ready to dial back the fun for a little more substance these days. I remember when I was in grad school and left my science curriculum job to work for a non-profit that helped build organizational capacity in small health-focused non-profits. That was really fulfilling work that prompted me to look for other opportunities to improve my community as well -- but at that point I felt too inexperienced to make much of a contribution. Now I face a different obstacle. Now, I can't help but feel stymied in my efforts to contribute because I am not following the general path of getting married, having kids, etc. that most women my age are already well along, and I feel like I have no credibility to speak for others when I'm not speaking from a place of shared self-interest based on shared experience. Sometimes, probably egotistically, I think that I'm trying to chart a new course for adulthood that doesn't involve traditional work and family structures, but mostly I just feel left out. In some ways, the altruism/hedonism dialectic allows me to feel less weird, because I can just attribute the no spouse/family thing to protracted adultolescence. (As an aside, this prompts me to think about corporate culture in an online, constantly surveilled world, and my evolving belief that no one should judge anyone for their personal choices, but I'll leave that for another post.)

In any case, I think my head and heart are in the right place, and it's just time I decided to grow up. 

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