Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Detritus

Fun is not the point. Fun is a by-product.

There's a difference between instrumental goals and terminal goals. I don't arrive at work on time because arriving at work on time will make the clouds part and the angels sing and my life suddenly feel complete and fulfilling. I arrive at work on time because it helps me to be a more effective educator: I can get my morning scut-work done before class, I can start class on time, and so forth. Many things in my life are subordinate to the goal of being a good educator of students.

But even that's not the terminal goal. The terminal goal is glorifying God. Whenever I do a good job of keeping that in mind, it settles a lot of unsettled things in my life.

But back to fun, I run into this problem all the time. I have too many students, and even the occasional colleague, who put fun too close to the core of their value array. And that's asking for trouble. I cannot think of a single endeavor about which I can say "I am doing this solely for the purpose of having fun," that won't wind up disappointing me. Many things that need doing can be fun along the way, but there's always a more substantive objective. I usually have fun when I teach, have fun when I work with my colleagues, have fun when I write test questions (it's so easy to write a good, rigorous test question that just happens to have a bit of a joke in one of the wrong answers), have fun when I do almost anything. But anytime I'm tempted to think, "I don't want to do this for the sole reason that it isn't fun," I'm straying from sound decision-making into frivolity.

It occurs to me that this has something in common with the kind of conceptual inflation, the kind of bubble, that surrounds efforts to raise people's self-esteem. That, I am convinced, is one of the most benign-sounding terrible ideas of all. If someone has a fever, it's a mistake to treat just the fever except in circumstances when the fever itself has become life-threatening. Those circumstances are pretty rare. Similarly, it is a mistake to treat low self-esteem except in that limited set of circumstances when cratered self-esteem is making suicide look like a good idea. Yes, in situations like that, I can see it. But the overwhelming majority of the time, it seems to me that addressing self-esteem without addressing the inputs that caused it to sag is cutting a corner, taking a shortcut, taking the easy way out, running away from confronting core issues. If you've got such a huge, festering boil in you that it's raising your body temperature a degree or two, then you accomplish nothing by popping an ice-pack on top of it to cool it off. Instead, it needs to be opened up and drained. And where people have complex, layered, multivariate distortions in their perceptions, their relationships, their expectations, their self-talk habits, etc. that are dragging their self-esteem down, then it's the inputs that have to be treated, not the symptom.

That was a bit of a digression, but it's an opinion I've arrived at after a bunch of years navigating the Communication Studies field and seeing what kinds of atrocious thinking we sometimes get up to. And my feelings about fun are closely related.

When you cut the corner and just try to raise someone's self-esteem, the outcome is bound to be inauthentic. If people compliment me just because they think I'm having a down day, then sooner or later I'm going to figure out that the compliments were just a product of sympathy, not an expression of genuine admiration. The whole "everyone gets a trophy, everyone gets to be valedictorian" perspective on self-esteem produces only phoniness. It doesn't produce enduring confidence that has a hard center and resists setbacks; it produces a fake, frothy ersatz self-esteem that can't stand up to an imagined cross look from a friend.

And I get the same dissatisfaction whenever I put my own enjoyment at the center of an activity and measure it by how successfully it entertains me. Things that are worth doing have a purpose, have a product, and are satisfying to complete because I know they needed doing. I get up and go to work every day knowing that I make a difference, that I help old children become young adults, that I encourage and nurture and cultivate and train and strengthen. It's all exhausting work, but at the end of it, I feel a very sturdy sense of joy at what I've racked up. And, along the way, there are endless opportunities to have fun.

That fun needs to be kept to the edges, at the periphery, so it doesn't dilute the actual serious work, but just flavors it and makes it a bit more palatable. Fun can be energizing, and the energy can flow back into the effort. But fun for the sake of fun just doesn't compute. It just reminds me too much of empty calories. Good, nutritious food can be prepared in appealing ways, but when we pull out all the stops to just slap together chemicals that have a pleasing flavor, the outcome is an abomination. Or at least that's how it strikes me.