Saturday, March 8, 2014

Switching Off vs Switching Over

It's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. The claim isn't even tough to justify, for just about everyone feels either that he works hard or hard enough and even the most leisured seem to find themselves at the edge of exasperation. One can find plenty of intellectual confirmation for the cause too, with just about any school of thought or philosophy making room for a little rest and relaxation. Yet the key component to relaxation is in fact the work itself. You don't realize how pleasant and restorative is relaxation until you've pushed yourself to the limit.

Teaching this academic school year has been instructive for your blogging educator. The early years of teaching, one hopes successful teaching, follow a familiar path. First you learn to establish order and organization, then you find the ideal presentation of the curriculum as you have found it, then you slowly perfect the curriculum, finally learning to adapt it to students, time, and place. All along the way you develop and find your own voice, style, and teaching demeanor. Occasionally an upheaval at one step sends you back a few, but the process seems reliably sequential. It also seems like many professional endeavors, to accelerate. This year I've gotten pretty carried away, and I won't out my hubris by suggesting at which step I find myself.

Re-designing tests, scanning articles, making projects, I'm progressing to the point where work is my default activity. It is swallowing everything. Weekly Shakespeare? Gone. Online and mail-order lectures? Poof! The fruits of my leisure reading are found on my bedside desk, on which reside half-a-dozen or so books, opened but plopped text down a few pages in.

Worse, even my interest for other things seems to wane. Less often do I anymore awake on Saturdays yearning for Bach than do I rise to find my mind turning to tweaking yesterday's work. Instead of the old postprandial hankering to write a new blog post, I've found it easier just to tackle the next test or assignment coming down work's pike.

There's no villain in this story, though. I like my job, respect the material, and honor the agreement with my students and patrons. I can do no differently than I do. The curiosity is that even exciting, challenging, and valuable work, including intellectual work, can be stultifying. Man is multifarious. I recall still the tremendous indignation I felt toward the musicologist who wrote that, and I paraphrase, Mozart's musical abilities were developed radically beyond his other skills. (Emphasis mine.) Indeed they were, though, and the trio of interest, skill, and effort tend to amplify each other and resonate to the deafening of all other desires. We're often encouraged to be well rounded, but seldom reminded how difficult it is to keep that pleasing, burnished bent.

Again there's no villain here, except the extremities in which some virtues consume all of the oxygen, extinguishing others. It's easy to praise rest and moderation as well, but it's in fact even easier when you can feel the coarsening effect of immoderation. Naturally, to notice the effect you need to stop and reflect, which is tough to do when you're tired. One cannot reflect or meditate in exhaustion.

Of course, it's a trite saying of the self-important that sometimes you just need to relax. It's an easy enough claim to justify, for just about everyone feels–so what to do? It's easy to cry for moderation, but how exactly can one champion mediocrity? Anyway, effort is preferable to indolence, and tepid work means tepid relaxation.

It seems a prudent start to view relaxation not simply as the absence of work, but also as calling for the cultivation of other virtues; the slackening of one line to pull on another. I ought to note that here by work I mean anything done by necessity or disposition, i.e. something which inclines toward extremity. In this way one cultivates an interest which opposes the other to balance. In the alternative, either the lacuna of inactivity swallows up work or the wave of work fills the crevices of your mind. By an opposed arrangement vigor is checked so that it neither dominates nor collapses into sloth, and instead of relaxation as idleness, we have purposeful repose which repairs and permits the exercise of all virtues in quiet, humble balance.

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