How often have you been given an assignment in school or at work, something you would – had it not now become an assignment from someone else – otherwise enjoy doing? I love reading, all kinds of books and authors; however the minute a teacher would assign a text the joy of reading would be utterly destroyed. As a teacher and a therapist I see the sunken shoulders and sorrowful expressions of adolescents having this very experience. As a thirty year old man trying to build a small business I know this experience is common for many adults too.
Aristotle observes in his Ethics that we naturally enjoy those things we choose for ourselves, and experience sorrow when we are compelled to do something by an external agent. The Philosopher gives the example of being threatened with violence unless we do what our attacker demands. This is certainly a clear example, but the elements of the situation are just the same in the case of class assignments and work projects. After all we are being threatened with some dire consequences if we do not accomplish our class work: we won’t get a good grade, we won’t graduate, at best we’ll get a servile job making minimum wage, we’ll live in an apartment our whole life (or if you live in LA, very quickly your car begins to look like a really good cost saving residence) and on and on.
This problem is especially acute for adolescents. Not only do we, at any time of life, despise being compelled to do something, but adolescents have as their developmental task becoming independent. How can a teenager grow in the virtue of prudence – to make concrete decisions based on universal principles – if he is never free to choose anything for himself but is constantly under the direction of others?
Can we enjoy the things we have to do?
One option might be never to do what it is we ourselves do not choose. This however can have some very serious consequences along the lines of the dooms day scenario described for the student who will not do any of his class work outlined above. Perhaps if we examine what joy is we will be in a better position to answer our question.
Joy, St Thomas says, is a resting in the good. No longer are we seeking the object of our desire but we possess it, and at rest, we enjoy it. Reading an Evelyn Waugh novel, smoking an Arturo Fuente, or drinking a Cabernet by The Fableist are all acts of resting, indeed resting in some of the greatest goods life offers. And yet it remains that when we are compelled to read, or smell someone else’s cigar smoke, or drink Two Buck Chuck we are no longer resting in our desire, but are compelled to seek something else.
A solution to this might be to recall what it is our work is ordered to, that is, “Why are we doing this anyways?” Is it to get a job? To support a family? Is it to get out of mom and dad’s house and live life on our own terms? To pay for an awesome trip? What is the good thing that we can one day rest in for which all our labors are undertaken? Focusing on something we have chosen, for the sake of which we undertake the the work others compel us to do, is a way to begin to enjoy that very work. The ancient phrase respice ad finem that is, look to the end reminds us of this principle. This then is one way to find joy in our work.
This is precisely the gospels message when we read, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven.” By keeping our ultimate goal in mind not only do the daily duties in fulfillment of our Vocation become delightful but even great feats of theological virtue such as martyrdom become possible. Aso catholics we have the example of the saints and the spiritual direction of priests. As mentioned we rely on our fathers and communities of peers like the Meccabee Society. But what specific guides do teenagers have?
What About Our Teens
It falls then to parents and teachers, coaches and mentors to guide adolescents in articulating their goals. Graduation, going to college, and entering the workforce are all goals required of our teens. If they are able to state how these goals, even though not chosen by them, are ordered to the things they desire then high school, SATs, and college applications becomes a more enjoyable task.
One very effective way to help students see how each day is getting them closer to their goal, to that great good to which their life is ordered, is to help them build a five year plan. As already mentioned, teens have some very fixed goals: high school graduation, entering college, graduating college, getting a job, as well as some obvious secondary goals, taking the SAT, filling out college applications, writing a thesis, building a resume. These are easy enough to place on the five year plan. But do not limit yourself to these, what about the sport or instrument you want learn? What about the skill you want to acquire? What about the kind of person you want to be when you grow up? Write these goals down!
Now comes the hard part, What are the steps you have to take to fulfill these goals? Get a calendar out and place each of them on a different month. Remember you have five years to get this done but if you do not know what each of the steps are toward your goal you are not very likely to get there. Take a look at these videos by Art of Manliness Blogger Bret McKay Big Rocks and How to Plan Your Week. Both of them are fantastic meditations on how to set goals and execute them.
I hope you were edified and delighted by this post. It was first published on my blog at www.colorofthought.com so check out that page for other flotsam and jetsam of my minds meditations. Looking forward to your comments here and there!