Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The (very small) Downside to Being a Kid in a Candy Store

  I don't read as much as I used to, and sometimes that bothers me. I still read something everyday, but its different. I used to sit up at night with a book, usually a novel, and read for hours at a time. And I did that often. Now I pick up a book at night and I read a few pages before falling asleep. I read in the morning too. Usually some combination of news, op-eds, and essays will accompany my morning coffee. And I often find something there that gives me a new thought, or at least a new perspective on a familiar thought. But its not the same.

  Some of the books that I read when I was in my twenties had a profound impact on my life. The stories themselves were often riveting, but the perspective that I gained was what made the exchange so valuable and so desirable.Through literature, I discovered entirely new ways of thinking, and even being. I learned to take abstract ideas of ethics and morality, and apply them to my day to day life. Some of those books changed the way that I thought about myself and my relationship with the world around me. But its been years now since I've had such a passionate and intimate relationship with a book.

  And its not the fault of the books. If I had a hundred lives to work with, the supply of great literature would still be far too vast for me to exhaust it. In fact, I have books sitting unread on my shelves right now, and I'm confident that some are quite good, and possibly even great. I think the most significant difference now is time. As lame as it sounds, I just don't have enough of it. I still have as many hours in the day as I did ten years ago. And I probably work even fewer hours than I did when I was gobbling up novels. But the more the world opens up to me, the more I see new things that I want to experience. And therein lies the dilemma.

  When it comes to how I spend my time here on earth, I have a dizzying array of options, and many of them are quite inviting. But I do have a finite amount of time to work with, and the clock is always ticking. It is, as the saying goes, a good problem to have. But it seems important to consider it thoughtfully none the less. After all, I'd love to read thousands of novels. And I'd love to listen to thousands of bands. I want to travel to every country on the globe. I want to run a hundred marathons, swim in every sea, and climb a few choice mountains. I also want to enjoy a lot of long walks through quiet parks, just past dusk on cool autumn evenings. I want to meet interesting people, and take the time to get to know them on an intimate level. I want to go to baseball games and drink too much beer and shout obscenities at players and fans. I want to show a dozen schoolchildren how to find the Big Dipper. And I want to learn how to play at least one song on the violin. But no matter how I do the math, I just don't see how I can do all of these things.

  So I have important choices to make. Lots of them. Perhaps more choices than my mind is wired to handle. This multitude of options does, after all, provide a set of circumstances that is relatively new for us as human beings. So perhaps the first thing that I need to do is remember that I have choices to make, and to constantly remind myself that I want to be conscious of my decisions. Because I can easily settle into a routine that doesn't require much in the way of decisions. I can fill my hours/days/years with working/eating/watching TV and be done with it. Time will pass and so will I, and the world will be indifferent to my lack of participation.

  But that feels like a criminal act. I have opportunities that billions of others can only dream of. Through mostly dumb luck, I am the owner of a healthy body and a sound mind. And I was born into an environment in which abundant resources give me the chance to nourish that body and mind. From this launching pad, there are few destinations that are beyond my reach. So part of me does feel obligated to make the most of my life. But most of me just feels exhilarated by the prospect of diving into each new day.

  Which brings me back to the choices that I must make. How do I choose when to train for a marathon, and when to go to a concert and drink beer? When to stay home and read a book, and when to spend some time with a friend? When to work a little more to pay for a trip to a distant country, and when to take some time off to enjoy the city that I call home?

  On the surface, it seems like there isn't a wrong answer. Plentiful resources and options are a luxury to be thankful for. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I want to recognize that there are pitfalls as well. And those can be nearly as unappealing as the aforementioned soul deadening routine of TV, work, etc.

  For example, there is no limit to the goals that I can set for myself with running. I could run two or three times a day, and find a different race every week. I could give everything I have to that aspect of my life, and there is a part of me that would love it. I could also scale down to a 15 hour work week, make good use of my library card, and spend the rest of my years inside the pages of a book. And that has a certain appeal to it as well.

  But I want to spread myself around more than that. The world is full of wonders and marvels, and I want to discover those in all of their multitudes and diversities. And yet I don't want to simply breeze through those experiences. I don't want to take a snap shot of the Grand Canyon, check it off of the list, and move on. I want to be in the Grand Canyon. I want to hike through its trails, feel its rocks in between my toes, and cool off in its waters.

  And I can do that. And I will do that. I'll also read more books. And I'll run more marathons. And I'll experience things that I haven't even thought of yet. But the process of choosing what I will do and what I'll have to pass on, is bound to leave a tinge of regret and disappointment. Because no matter how glorious my days may be, I will have left behind thousands of other days that never will be.

  It is, again, a good problem to have. And for the most part, I just feel incredibly fortunate for the life that I'm living. But there is also a slight wistful sadness to it all, that I'll sometimes indulge for a moment. And in that moment I feel a bit like the kid trying to choose what treats he can have from the candy store. No matter how good the chocolate caramel cupcake turns out to be, he knows that the cookie with the raspberry lemon swirl frosting would have been amazing as well. And I know that I can't eat them all, but sometimes I just can't stop myself from wishing that I could.

(The thoughts in this post were spurred in part by a couple of conversations that I had recently, and also from a blog that I came across about a month ago. That blog is linked below. If you've got a moment, I think its well worth reading.)


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