I’m watching airplanes land at McCarran Airport. It’s a blustery day, and I don’t envy the passengers as the planes land in fierce crosswinds. You can see the tail of the plane wag left, then right, as the aerodynamics of the fuselage does its job of correcting itself in perfect harmony with forces that would otherwise slam it into the ground.
The life of a human being has no such aerodynamics. No inherent correcting forces. If we want to move forward in harmony with the forces around us and within us, we have to decide to do so.
No surprise that a meaningful, productive and happy life is a balancing act. But perhaps one of the most difficult and complicated balancing acts is sorting out the opposing forces of “seeking” and “belonging.” When is it time for seeking to be the priority? To loosen or even relinquish our presence and dedication to relationships, allowing us to learn, grow and experience new adventures? For example, if your son or daughter is heading to college this fall, he/she will likely exhibit less presence and dedication to relationships with Mom and Dad, and more presence and dedication to seeking adventures, autonomy and personal development.
On the other hand, when is it time for belonging to be the priority? To bridle and restrain wanderlust and the indulgence of personal interests, instead concentrating on interpersonal commitments and responsibilities. For example, if your wife is in labor with your first child – come to think of it, with any child – it’s probably not a good time to realize your dream of fly fishing in Alaska with your old college buddies.
I talk and write a lot about the development of selfhood. Becoming wholly thyself. I value this as a way of life. But this value presents an uncomfortable conundrum. How to balance the meaningful and important work of selfhood with the equally meaningful and important work of covenant? By “covenant” I mean commitment, dedication, devotion and fidelity to covenant relationships: marriage, children, family, friendships, vocation, spirituality.
I think of the 1996 movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” starring Richard Dreyfuss. Here’s a 30-year-old musician and composer with a dream to write an opus and contribute great beauty to the world. OK, some of the dream is probably about fame, glory and riches, too. Mr. Holland takes a job as a music teacher in a public school. For him, it’s some stopgap income and a place to work on his music.
Then he becomes a father. His son is deaf. Responsibilities overwhelm him. He spends the next 30 years changing the lives of student after student. He learns to be a good father. He is tempted to have an affair with a graduating senior. She makes him feel alive again. He ponders leaving his marriage and following the younger woman to the big city where he can live the life he’s always wanted. He walks to the edge of this “cliff” before his sensible self says no to the student.
Mr. Holland’s abiding attitude during these 30 years is one of “oy vey.” On his best days, he feels restless and resentful, always chafing after an image of life that eludes him. On his worst days, he feels cheated and bitter.
On the day Mr. Holland retires, his now-adult students surprise him with a celebration, including a live performance of his opus. The theme of the film, of course, is that Mr. Holland has always been right where he needed to be. That Mr. Holland’s pervasive sense of being robbed and alienated from his “real” life has always been an illusion.
It’s illusion for you and me, too. I’ve wasted too many days waiting for a chance at my “real” life, when my real life is going on right now. The idea that we must ultimately choose between seeking and belonging is false. The fast-track curriculum for personal development is making and keeping radical commitments. Not relinquishing them.
I think of these things every time I watch yet another man or woman choose divorce as necessary strategy for “finding yourself.” I wince inside. This false dichotomy is the premier bill of goods modern people have sold ourselves: I either am free to be a whole, healthy self … or … I am free to be in a life partnership/marriage.
When you say it out loud, it’s ridiculous. The wonder is, then, that it’s such a compelling ethos.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press).
His columns appear on Sundays.
Contact him at 227-4165 or