Embrace the Journey

Embrace the Journey

I recently hit a milestone birthday, have had a couple of health scares in my immediate family, and watched an old friend lose his tiny daughter to brain cancer. Needless to say, I have had no trouble with the Stoic concept of memento mori lately.

As is custom, I retreated into my own head to process what was going on around me. One of the many books I worked through in this process was Midlife by Kieran Setiya. One passage, in particular, spoke to me.

This is how I diagnose my own midlife crisis. It is partly about regret and missing out and fear of death, but mainly a response to the self-subversion of the project-driven life. My affliction is chronic, not acute, masked by the whirl of activity: more papers to grade, meetings to organize, books to read. It is not that I take no pleasure in going for a walk or spending time with friends, not getting much of anything done. But the roots of meaning in my life are principally telic: they aim at terminal states. I am not unlike Paniotis. While my condition is less extreme, its etiology is the same. I am ruefully possessed by the telic mindset. This is what explains the sense of emptiness, of repetition and futility, in getting what I want.

. . .

Even if we are bound to pursue telic ends, even if they are objects of desire, they are not the only things that matter; other activities can give meaning to our lives. We can escape the self-destructive cycle of pursuit, resolution, and renewal, of attainments archived or unachieved. The way out is to find sufficient value in atelic activities, activities that have no point of conclusion or limit, ones whose fulfillment lies in the moment of action itself. To draw meaning from such activities is to live in the present—at least in one sense of that loaded phrase—and so to free oneself from the tyranny of projects that plateaus around midlife.

What Setiya describes in this passage is one of the horrors of coming of age in any era, but especially in the present era. Setiya, harkening back to Aristotle, divides activities into telic – those activities with a goal having a defined endpoint from the outset – and atelic – those activities done for the simple purpose of doing them.

Our society has a bias towards the telic. Writing a book is superior to writing in a journal, an intense gym session is superior to a relaxing walk in the woods, and a business meeting to discuss how to increase quarterly profits is superior to a happy hour after work to spend time with friends and colleagues.

In the 21st Century, we design our lives to produce more, to grab the brass ring, to maximize our material comfort. Setiya’s point is one worth internalizing: telic activities can never fulfill you. If you fail to reach the goal, you are disappointed, but if you do reach the goal, you have nothing left to strive for.

The solution to this dilemma is to focus your life on the atelic, or at least to trick yourself into recognizing the atelic in the telic. When there is no longer a goal to achieve, you can find the joy of the journey. The process becomes your source of meaning and fulfillment. 

Give yourself permission to enjoy that walk in nature. Relish the “junk time” with your children and give them a chance to a lighter, more playful side of you. Have a date night with your significant other where the only purpose is to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company. Slow down and live a life of continuous fulfillment at the expense of the fleeting accomplishments so valued by society.