For so many teenagers, it’s simply not an option. Their grades must be exemplary. Their SAT and ACT scores must be in one of those coveted eat-sleep-and-drink percentiles. Their college applications must be loaded with everything from athletics to community involvement. Their college grades must stand out, even when surrounded by standout students. Their graduate school years must reflect pinpoint focus. All of this more often than not leads to punishing 80-hour weeks at that longed-for corporate job, where creativity, freedom and empathy are shunted aside in favor of six-figure prestige and tireless climbing.
Companies like Google, with cash streaming in faster than it can be printed, can and do take advantage of that circumstance to encourage their employees to eat well, to exercise, to be creative, to give back—and set up their corporate campuses accordingly. Many more, though, under the constant pressure of relentlessly judged quarterly reports or simply meeting monthly expenses, demand more than the body can realistically sustain. Over time, sleep becomes a secondary concern and exercise a tertiary matter, with family activities fit in whenever possible.
That one gesture, that universal conveyance of anger and defiance, that singular finger. Yet beyond what can causally be attributed to this or that surface offense or vernacular veneer, why is it so pervasive? What lies under the skin that ignores patience and forgiveness?
Looking outward: Someone aggressively weaves in and out of congested traffic on the Schuylkill Expressway with the no-holds-barred determination of getting to that McDonald’s or bank drive-thru window 90 seconds earlier. Rather than react with that all-too-common shot of disgust, rather than increase hormones and heartbeats, why not just let it pass? As difficult as it can sometimes be, love thy neighbor as thyself isn’t just some Biblical catchphrase to be tossed like so much salad dressing. Why buy into the kind of pharmaceutical-grade drama that can suck the life out of an otherwise peaceful moment? Why not consider stepping back and feeling empathy for that person, grateful that your own stomach is full, that you’ve got use of both legs, that your breathing is regular, that you’re not lying in a hospital bed?
You’ve taken three or four years of high-school French or Spanish, then another three or four more years in college (where the offerings are significantly broader, extending from Mandarin to Russian to Hindi and all points between)… and six months later you remember a few dozen words and cannot speak or read the language, as far from fluency as Paris is from Beijing. You’re intelligent and motivated, and did all of the requested homework, yet the results speak for themselves. I simply have no gift for languages, you think, and move on to other areas of study and projects that yield tangible results.
You’re entrepreneur with a great idea for a product or service not currently provided, or otherwise unavailable within the scope and parameters with which you envision. You run it by a large swath of potential supporters, many of whom may pooh-pooh your idea and not support an otherwise solidly considered endeavor. Are their reasons pure? Is their faith in you complete? Are there conflicting agendas at play?
Are you discouraged?
The latter part of September perpetually hosts the first day of fall—a time of moderating weather, heavier work schedules and looking ahead.
During one’s teens, 20s and even 30s, this annual period typically seems full of hours and days, its farewell comfortably in the distance. Yet into the 40s and 50s, those selfsame hours appear ever briefer, ever more precious. As much as the numbers themselves do not change, our perception of them moves ever faster. While not able to slow the calendar’s relentless progression, making the most of each 24-filled gift basket goes a long way in mitigating it. This applies to finding fulfillment in work and career projects, to spending dedicated time with family and friends, to enjoying vacations and travel, to lifelong learning.
The concept of sitting amongst interminable traffic is so widespread and familiar as to make regular clichés seem like fresh air in Beijing. How we respond can make the difference between being impatient and forlorn for the entire day or at peace with productivity in light of what cannot be changed.
Do we curse or listen to an audiobook? Do we throw up a thin body part in a form of gesticular cancer or do we put on a foreign language-learning CD? Do we feel stress to the point of needing a heart stent or do we call ahead and let them know that we’ll be late?
Why is it that ‘discipline’ so often seems like little more than 2½ four-letter words? Or the rebuke of stern punishment? Or behavior as tightly controlled as a bank teller’s drawer? Why is it that typing this singular word into a Google search yields an overwhelming number of articles about disciplining children? Why is it that self-discipline more often than not evokes giving up statin-inducing cheesecake and excessive beer and lazy workdays?
Because that’s where human instinct would have us go. Yet the absence of discipline yields little more than galling gluttony. The hard-to-digest fact—counterintuitive as it may initially seem—is that the joy of discipline is far more sustaining than pleasures as easy to obtain as pints of ice cream or Scotch. Take any kind of work (another four-letter word, but that’s for another time…) that you love and are highly motivated to achieve, then measure how it feels after four or five solid hours of intense work. Exhausted? Sure. Exhilarated? Equally sure.
It’s surely understandable that the small daily interactions most of us carry on each day—be they with bank tellers to retail clerks and everyone in between—don’t plumb the depths of how we truly feel. Who has the time or inclination? Who would go into a Starbucks and, in response to “How are you doing,” confess to feeling poignantly low in the wake of a friend’s or family member’s death? Or, for that matter, on the other side of the compass: “I just came from a six-mile run and feel incredibly grateful to be able to put one foot in front of the other.”
I’ve recently been more deliberate with these kinds of interactions, by responding with a very brief but profound comment about life, politics, health, family, education et al. It’s been gratifying to recognize how quickly we can form strong connections with those whom we don’t really know, with the resulting warmth carrying throughout the day.