Is it selfish, and is that okay?

If you read these pages, it should be pretty obvious that I like to write.  Why I write is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately, and I’m having difficulty coming to a reasonably believable and simultaneously satisfying answer.  The truth of it is that there are many answers, but when I consider the implications of those answers the results are highly contradictory and/or unsatisfying.

When I started writing, I pretty much wrote for myself.  Writing was a chance to organize my thoughts and either deal with what was on my mind or divert my attention away from it.  At times, writing gave me the outlet and strength I needed to continue when I wasn’t sure I had enough in reserve.  It gave me something to occupy lonely hours sitting in hotel rooms while on business trips.  My writing was then, and continues today, to be predominantly selfish.

As a result of this selfish nature, I find it hard to justify spending much time writing.  There are so many demands on my time that it is impossible to satisfy even a small number of them.  Many, if not most, of those demands are grounded in service to somebody else.  Often family, occasionally friends, and sometimes strangers need help; and this type of service to others generally takes priority over my personal preferences.

I have occasionally tried to convince myself that what I write is of value to others.  To some degree, I view what I write as leaving something of myself for posterity.  Along the way, there were a few times when my longevity was in doubt, and writing gave me comfort knowing that my kids would have at least some insight into my mind if I weren’t around to see them grow.   However, what I write can’t possibly replace the personal experiences and interactions that compete for the time I would otherwise spend writing.  Justifying time writing as a service to posterity is a flimsy argument.

I have also hoped that what I write might find meaning in the heart of any random reader.  I want what I write to be read and enjoyed.  However, almost nobody reads what I write.  Furthermore, doing the things I’d have to do to broaden my audience would poison the well from which I draw while writing.  If I were to try to commercialize what I write, I’d quickly learn to despise it.   Writing for a broader audience doesn’t appear to be a viable justification for the time I spend.

There are a few other things that motivate me to write, but none of them are any more satisfying than those already listed.  In the end, I have to conclude that my time writing is mostly selfish.  I steal it from other worthy causes.  The question I have to wrestle with, then, is whether it’s okay to be selfish so I can fill that particular need within myself, or whether I should just drop this line of effort and let it idle along with so many other projects that await that mythical day when I can spend time on them.

Left undone

An afternoon unallocated
Retreat to the shop, pick something up
"Dad!" -- A call for my help
It can wait... I whisper to myself
As I answer the call of a child

An evening to write -- maybe a chapter
Open the draft and read what I wrote
Memory refreshed, prepared to compose
A knock at the door draws my attention
A neighbor needs help
The story will be there tomorrow I guess

The oil needs changing -- maintenance deferred
A banging noise calls for investigation
It'll only take an afternoon or so
Maybe I should just pay someone else
But I'll find some time I promise myself
Hoping that noise isn't dangerous

More to do than time allows

Time is a teacher, but many of her lessons are about herself.  One lesson time repeatedly and frequently tries to teach me is how fleeting, rare, and precious she is.  It always seems I am putting some project or another on the back burner to wait the day when I’ll finally have enough time to finish what I started.   In fact, as a college kid I would joke about what I would do when all I had was a day job and school was over.  After graduation, I joked about what I’d do when we had enough money so that I could quit my night job and just deal with a regular eight-hour shift.  Before that happened, a kid came into our family and complicated things.  About the time we could afford for me to drop the second job, I entered graduate school and we had a second kid.

Each new evolution saw me introducing slight variations on the theme of “when I have more time” without really changing the status-quo.  It was always a refrain with the same general theme.  However, one time sink was replaced by another (and sometimes two) as school was replaced by work that didn’t respect a time-clock, another kid was added to the mix, older kids got more involved in various activities, and so on.  After a while, I quit joking about what I would do when whatever milestone I was awaiting arrived and I would have more time.  Reality was screaming that I would never really have more time — at least not until my kids were grown, I was retired, and I had somehow lost my enduring interest in a wide diversity of things.  I don’t believe I’ll ever have much “free” time.

At this point in my life, I’ve managed to mostly accept the fact that projects I start may take several orders of magnitude longer than they should.  Even with the best of plans and intentions, something always seems to get in the way and force me to set it aside in order to deal with external pressures or priorities.  The net result is a garage and house full of things waiting on an afternoon or more of unallocated time — a rare event.  Just walking out to the garage to get a tool reminds me of work I’ve started but left undone.  That is an unpleasant experience for me.  I like to finish what I start.

From time to time, Liz will look at one of my projects and ask in a slightly exasperated tone of I’m ever going to finish it.  Earlier in our marriage, this happened much more frequently thanks to Liz’s anti-hoarder tendencies, and occasionally it boiled over into a request to get rid of something.  However, over the years she’s come to understand that I will use the stuff I’m clinging to, and almost always finish a stalled project eventually.  For the most part, she just rolls her eyes and tries not to look too closely when she goes into the garage.  She knows it’s important to my mental health to have projects waiting for me should I have unallocated time.

As a quick example of how long simple projects can take, I recently made a batch of soap.  In spite of the fact that the actual process is fairly quick once you have everything ready, I started it years ago.  The best way to make soap requires a stick blender, so for several years I would look through the small appliance section in every thrift store I came across for a stick blender.  It took probably two years to find one — in a thrift store half way across the nation from home while on a business trip.  I bought it, knowing I wouldn’t be able to use it for quite a while, and threw it in my suitcase.

Much later, I happened into a reasonably large quantity of beef suet that I didn’t really have a better purpose for.  Wanting to use tallow for making soap, I stashed it in the freezer.  It stayed there until one evening I finagled some time, pulled it out, rendered it, and put the now purified tallow back into the freezer where it sat.  It stayed there for a while waiting for me to find time to take the next step.

The lye I used had a similar history.  Thanks to it’s use in making methamphetamine, pure lye is much more difficult to come by than it used to be.  Most of the big box home improvement stores don’t carry it anymore.  However, one day as I was walking through the plumbing section of a small town Texas hardware store looking for something completely unrelated to soap making, I saw a few bottles of pure lye drain opener.  I added it to my cart, knowing that I would need it when I finally got around to making soap.  It sat unused in the garage collecting dust for a long time.

The fat, the blender, and the lye could have been viewed as a hoarders treasure.  Stuff kept just for the sake of having it.  Stuff without a real intended purpose.  Stuff that should be thrown away.  However, these things were acquired with a specific purpose in mind, and maintained for that purpose.  The illusion that they are a hoarder’s treasure, I suppose, comes from the fact that I have had to become comfortable with extended time-lines.   Most of the projects I do for myself have rather long horizons, and were I to demand fixed deadlines or quick turn-around times, I would give up on any and all of it and sink into a pretty dark funk.  There would be no point in keeping anything (not necessarily a bad thing), and no reason to work on long-term projects (a very bad thing).

This long term view does result in a significant amount of clutter, but I am willing to put up with the mess as long as I have a reasonable expectation I will eventually have a chance to finish a project.  I do periodically go through the stack and evaluate the feasibility of ever finishing a given set of projects and get rid of any that aren’t likely to ever bubble their way to the top of the priority stack.  Most of the time, the decision to get rid of them is a good one.  Sometimes I have regretted getting rid of something later when life conspired to shift my priorities.  As a result, I tend to err on the side of caution and have no shortage of productive things to fill unoccupied time.  I’m almost never bored unless it’s at work where my time is not mine.

Because I have so many interests and projects, I constantly wonder how people find enough time to spend it profligately on things like television and mindless entertainment.  I guess I’m just weird, but I simply can’t bring myself to watch time just blow by unused or abused with things that don’t add value to the day.  About the closest I come to wasting my time is organizing my thoughts to write something like this pointless post, plumbing my feelings to write a poem, or taking time to go outside and enjoy the world God made.  Even as “useless” as those things may seem, they are done with a purpose that has value to me.

I suppose in the end, though, that this last thought is the one that provides the best insight into how others justify spending time on things I find pointless.  I suppose the things I find mindless and pointless fill a need for those who participate in them.  While I don’t find anything particularly rewarding or worthwhile in spending a weekend drinking beer and watching two sports teams do what they do, I have to accept the probability that this activity fills a need.  Just not one I recognize.  I’m willing to bet that those who indulge in this kind of diversion also feel like they have too little time, and they probably wonder how I can spend the time I do writing useless drivel.

Final Thoughts

What will you ponder 
When providence calls
And you must answer soon -- 
Passing beyond mortal life
And leaving all else behind

Concern for loved-ones remaining?
Freedom from sorrow and longing?

Fear that there's yet more to come?
Hope for what is yet to come?

Regret for things left undone?
Satisfaction in successes hard won?

Hot anger and spite?
Or calmness and quiet?