I just read Philip Nel’s blog post on Kieran Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” (pointed there by a guest post on the late Alison Piepmeier’s blog, but that’s another story), with its distinction between telic and atelic activities (those with an endpoint or goal and those that do not aim for a completion or accomplishment). Setiya proposes that to avoid or treat a midlife crisis, one can “invest more deeply in atelic ends,” the ones that may give most meaning to life (I think of relationships, friendships, nurturing other people, teaching; also practicing art or learning almost anything). He says that we do not have to abandon telic activities, but can also shift our relationship to them; Nel writes,
Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).
I realized that sometimes, particularly on breaks, I take an atelic pursuit, like spending time with a friend, and approach it in a telic manner so that I can “accomplish” something like “Take a walk with Mary and her dog” or “Have a date with Matt.” I’ve always been a little uncomfortable to find myself treating relationships like items on a to-do list, but it’s felt as though I’ve needed to approach them as telic so that I save some of my precious time for them and don’t let it get gobbled up by other tasks. (I know I’m not the only one who’s vaguely embarrassed by the whole idea of “date night,” yet who’s perfectly aware that without the concept we could easily go months without venturing out of the house together.)
On the other hand, since I spend a lot of my time teaching, preparing to teach, reading and writing, it’s also true that even immersed in apparently telic activities (create a plan for Wednesday’s class, put this troubled poem draft through another revision), I am also engaged in atelic pursuits (increasing student engagement, continuing to learn how to write a poem).
I guess the next thing is to read the article itself–a telic activity in that I can read it from beginning to end, but in service of an atelic pursuit–figuring out how to think about life. Nel says that the key factor is where you locate meaning in your life–in the accomplishment of particular goals, or in the continuing engagement with an activity for its own sake? I would think and hope that it’s more the latter for me, but that doesn’t acknowledge the importance of some particular goals (finish my next book, pay for a child’s college, help this particular batch of students develop their own perspectives on Song of Solomon).
This feels like just the right thing to have read three-quarters through spring break, with the rest of the school year bearing down and summer to plan for.