I pushed back from the computer, arms a little shaky, hip stiff, startle reflex nudging wired. Hungry lost out to an overwhelming desire to get horizontal on my couch with a little classical Pandora, or maybe Nature Sounds. As I slid onto my back, gazing at the driftwood and origami construction we had finally managed to hang on the muted scarlet accent wall in my downstairs office-cum-retreat, I was well and truly beat. It was that time in the semester and I had put in almost six non-stop hours "running the numbers;" transferring grades from the online gradebook into Excel and constructing the formulae that mesh dozens of grades from hundreds of students into the thousands of data points that would translate into Final Grades. As I said, well and truly beat — but satisfied.
My various lumps and bumps were negotiating an agreeable detente with the old comfy leather cushions when my Traitor-Mind piped up, interrupting something mildly transcendent by Deuter, "Why?"
"Why what?" I foolishly responded.
"Why are you satisfied? Why do you feel this quiet, exhausted calm?" said T-M.
"'Cause I just got a huge leg up on getting my grading done! That's an important part of my job." I shot back.
"Oh," said T-M. "Looked a lot like data processing to me."
"A lot you know!" I fired right back. And we went to sleep
After resting my eyes for an hour or so, I had to admit that T-M had a point. My "good day's work" had nothing to do with advancing my students' understanding of the content we had explored over the semester. Certainly it had nothing to do with my own dreams and aspirations. Oh, don't get me wrong, grading has its place, despite my occasional frustration with the obsessive importance students place upon their GPA. It is my job to put together assignments that encourage students to stretch the grey matter, and to assure that those assignments are evaluated in a way that fairly reflects the students' grasp of the material. But "running the numbers?" OK, so it was facile data processing. But I still felt a very real sense of accomplishment. It was a good day's work, damn it.
But here's the rub — there is no escaping the fact that a great deal of the satisfaction, the well-being I felt was, well, not so much artificial, as "heavily constructed." I felt satisfied because I had "done my job," despite the fact that the specific tasks were rather far afield from my idea of "being a college professor." Truth was that the recent and often not-so-subtle shift from "How good a teacher are you?" to "How many students can you reach effectively?" had made a previously minor task, like "running the numbers." seem far more important and hence more satisfying than perhaps it really should have been.
So why am I going on and on about this? Well, you see for the past 10 or 15 years I have been moving toward the notion that maintaining personal harmony is the penultimate objective in a life well-lived. I've come to three guiding principles; foster harmony, enable beauty, oppose harm. I'm good with those. However, figuring out exactly what I mean by each remains a continuing challenge. So what I'm hammering on here is the nature of harmony — true harmony as opposed to faux harmony, and inevitably I suppose, the ranges in between.
With that in mind, let's follow the day along further. It has been unusually warm here recently with the last few days breaking into the 90s, and that is hot even for Spring in the Carolinas. I have taken to walking the golf course across the street after dark, thus avoiding both sunstroke and errant golf balls. The walk this night was wonderfully harmonious. It was still a touch steamy, but the sprinklers were popping up along the fairways and so, with a little pacing, I could mist myself at will. The moon was pushing full, with the "Supermoon" due on Saturday. Frogs were doing their awesome a cappella thing. I walked through an unexpected little micro-climate and found myself submerged in scent — gardenias? Peonies? I couldn't be sure, but it hit "whelming" perfectly, stopping just this side of over. As I crested the rise by the lake the silhouette of a motionless, midnight-fishing heron etched itself across the moon-silvered water. This, I thought, is true harmony. T-M maintained a respectful silence, for a bit, then:
"How about someone from New York City or someone who was afraid of frogs or the dark?"
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm just saying," said T-M, "that someone from a big city who was afraid of the dark and frogs wouldn't find this harmonious. They'd run screaming for the nearest streetlight or go banging on the door of those McMansions over there. Get us all arrested. We are, after all, engaged in 'trespassing with intent to enjoy.'"
"You are such a jerk."
"I'm just saying, is all."
He was, of course, right. The only chord you can tune is your own. But all personal harmony is socially constructed to a certain extent. There is probably nothing that is universally, inherently, harmonious. All right, yes, maybe sex, that good old Darwinian drive to maintain the species. But we get sex so twisted up with divergent social constraints and taboos that we damn near take the harmony out of it as well.
The point I guess is this: Yes, even portions of our personal harmony are socially constructed. But we are the potent, determining authors in that construction. We write the songs. Often work, or friends, or teachers, or preachers, or parents will imply that we need to sing along with them. And often we will choose to do so. That is fine — we are social creatures and even chosen solitude can get lonely. But we must make sure that the choice is a choice, that it is our choice. And yes, it is OK to find harmonic exhaustion in elegant data processing as long as the data that you are processing are part of a larger, harmonic, choice.