25 October 2013

On the Importance of Being Useful

I have found that people like to feel useful. I know I do. It's not just that we want to keep busy but we want what we are busy with to have a purpose. This is why some old people are horribly depressed wither away and die. They feel useless. If you spend too long watching mindless TV or aimlessly surfing the web you can and will get depressed. I know this from experience. But if you are doing something you feel good. I suppose humans are hard wired that way. We joke about being lazy and not wanting to have anything to do but we also want to earn that free time. Come about honestly if you will.

Even just washing the dishes doing the laundry taking out the trash and recycling can feel good. Purposeful actions as opposed to thumb twiddling. I feel this more acutely now then I did when I was younger (and by the way I've always been younger than this and have never been any older than I am now; in the future I shall be older in the past I was younger). I was recently asked when I might retire. Mind you I'm way to young to retire but old enough to think about it. Anyway I answered by saying that I would have to be mad to retire from teaching ESL to adults. Who would want to walk away from work that is so bloody much fun? Now it is true that I have done some crazy ass things in my life but I have assiduously been working on cutting down on oddball behavior. Retire? In a pig's eye.

Retirement is a frightening notion for a lot of people. Not because they love their work but because they fear the absence of it in their lives. How will they fill the time? My dear old dad faced the same dilemma and for a short time after retiring was depressed -- although he'd be the last to admit it. But he found satisfying ways to fill his days. Fulfilling.  My father grew one bad ass garden in his spacious backyard which he tended lovingly and unfailingly. He also became as devoted a grandfather as one would ever hope to meet. He continued fishing and I do not mean sitting on a dock with a beer in one hand and a fishing pole in the other waiting for some poor sucker to take the bait. He went on salmon fishing trips out into the goddamned Pacific Ocean is what he did. And came back with fish for his sons and grandkids to enjoy. On the days he didn't fish he would often go down to the wharf and see how the boats did and swap lies with a bunch of old cronies. He also stuck his nose into politics volunteering for the local branch of the Democratic Party. He kept busy and happy.

I'm prone to short lived blue moods. I can only imagine what great sufferers of depression go through. Experiencing raging melancholia for even a quarter hour is truly awful. Days of it? No thanks and my heart goes out to people who endure it. Sometimes an attack of the miseries cannot be chased away and just must be outlasted. Other times there's a sure fire cure in the form of identifying a cause and addressing it post haste. Maybe there's an unpleasant errand that's been put off or a problem to be faced or a confrontation that can't be dodged. But other times it requires simply getting off one's derriere and doing something -- could maybe be anything -- useful. Writing always works for me. I feel like I'm feeding my soul. It's akin to the feeling after a run. Not only have I released endorphins but I feel damn good just for having done my body a huge favor.

I am reminded of the title song to the play and film Cabaret in which we are asked what good it is sitting all alone in our room and that as an alternative we should come hear the music play. This is of course figurative (although literally listening to music can be good for you too). Action activity movement purpose are all good for us.

I heard someone on the trolley in San Francisco today say that he could now cross seeing the Golden Gate Bridge off his bucket list. I find the very notion of bucket lists ridiculous. Really what does one do after crossing the last item of the bucket list? End it all? Maybe I'm taking it to seriously and literally but I would never want to have a finite number of tasks to complete before my life ended. There are places I want to see and things I want to do but they are endless and eternal even though I'm not.

Speaking of death. I have been reading James Agee's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece A Death in the Family -- ironically the Pulitzer was won posthumously. It of course deals with the premature death of a young husband and father of two (based on the author's childhood) and thus concerns itself with death. It is beautifully realized and elegant and so very real. Thus one cannot turn away from the central fact of the book. It is not so much mortality that we ponder (although that we do) but the loss of loved ones. This is at the core of human experience. It is one thing to face our own limited time in this life we also must face the losses of many of those around us. Some will go in due time when they are old and have lived a full life. As happy as we may be for their lives their deaths still bring sorrow. But there is also the specter of others passing well before their time. I have endured the death of two great friends a brother and former students all of whom were gone much too soon. One learns that any time we see someone it could be for the last no matter their health or good fortune. A Death in the Family is proving a stark reminder. I think of putting the book aside for another time....But instead I read on. If slower than I would if the subject matter were something cheery and light.

I can hear the question: why fill your days with morbid thoughts? For one thing they often come uninvited and refuse to leave unless seriously pondered. Also there is something curative about contemplating the worst. On the one hand it allows us to prepare ourselves for the worst should it ever happen. On the other hand it can help illuminate how damn good we have it. In my case I am at the current moment in superior health enjoying my work loving my family and surrounded by the arts. All this can change in the blink of an eye I know (knocking on wood won't change matters one iota) and its good to know that but even better to appreciate the moment which is all one ever really has anyway.

My advice is to be ever useful. To yourself and others. Never stop growing and learning and pushing the boundaries. One of the worst things many of us do is settle. If there is more or better to be had we owe it to ourselves to pursue the more or the better. We also owe it to ourselves (and those who love us) to grow and learn and explore and make the most of whatever gifts and opportunities surround us. Try never to surrender to the negative. Don't be consumed by anger or sorrow or ennui. Go forth. Always. Go forth.

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