One of my friends has a special knack—more of a compulsion really—for spinning things to make them sound positive. It’s earned her the nickname “Spinna” and plenty of teasing, as we try to one-up each other telling stories or bringing up tidbits that can’t possible have a positive side to test the limits of her optimism. Nothing is all bad in her world, and everything has a sunny side—it just needs someone like her to flip it sunny-side up.
In her, this trait is endearing, and it’s an authentic expression of her relentlessly joyful approach to the world. But I also see a version of this compulsion in women all around me, women training themselves and each other to have “good attitudes” and “love where you are” and “be present in the moment,” to “bloom where you are planted,” and “accept what you’ve been given.”
For a long time I’ve been irritated by this messaging. The irritation stems from a pattern I see in my own and other women’s lives, in which we settle for whatever is right in front of us, without asking if we could have achieved more or if we merited a better life. I’ve found in my (still fairly limited) experience of the world that men tend to see themselves as deserving the best—the best jobs at the best companies with the best salaries in the best locations with the best spouses. Women dream about those “bests,” sure—but when it comes down to making those life decisions, we quickly resign ourselves to whatever happens to be in front of us. I feel this psychological pull already within me in my grateful, unthinking acceptance of a low-paying receptionist job at a law firm, where I perform the labor of a legal assistant while being paid minimum wage.
Lately, therefore, I’ve been wrestling with what it means to me that I’ve settled for something less than I hoped for, less than what everybody told me I was capable of.
Various friends and family have (very kindly) given me advice like “love where you are,” and “just try to be present in this stage of your life,” in response to my concerns. Of course, my first impulse was to ignore this advice, since I am tired of people telling women especially, I believe, to plaster a good-attitude Band-Aid over a life we’re not happy in. But I also knew that in order to live well this year I would have to come to an understanding of how to “be present” in my life. I just couldn’t work out what that might be, until I read philosopher Kieran Setiya’s piece in the New York Times last month.
Like me, Setiya has little patience for the yoga-on-the-beach variety of being present in one’s life. He reminds readers that focusing on the present without reference to one’s past or future is, in fact, a disastrous approach to living life. Instead, he says we can understand being present by distinguishing between two types of activities we engage in on a day-to-day basis: telic and atelic activities.
Telic activities are activities that have a start and a finish (telic comes from the Greek telos, meaning end or purpose). Running a 5k, writing a paper, making a budget—telic activities are the sorts of things you can put on a to-do list or a calendar and check them off when they’re done.
Atelic activities, on the other hand, don’t have ends. However much you participate in atelic activities, you cannot “complete” them. They include things like thinking, learning, listening to music, and spending time with friends and family.
One key distinction between telic and atelic activities is that telic activities become achievements when they are finished successfully, whereas in atelic activities, achievement is already inherent in doing the activity itself. For example, running a 5k becomes an achievement not while you train for it, not halfway through the race, but only when you cross the finish line. But when spending time with a friend, for example, you do not progress toward some goal of spending time with the friend—in every moment with the friend, you already achieve your goal of spending time with them. The doing is the achieving.
What Setiya argues, then, is that while telic activities always have their fulfillment in the past or the future, atelic activities are fulfilling in the very moment that we perform them. Atelic activities, therefore, allow us to live “in the present” in a way that telic ones don’t.
My college life was full of telic activities. College itself, the completion of a four-year degree, was its own overarching telic structure, and within that structure there were constant projects to be completed, whether that was filling the local news page of Chimes every week, completing assignments, or writing papers. When I lost those constant telic activities upon graduation, it felt like I had lost the meaning and fulfillment that came from completing them.
Now, in this new and different mode of life, achievement looks different. I don’t have papers or projects due every week, and sometimes, if I’m perfectly honest, I wish that I did. Telic achievements have always kept me in good supply of gold stars and A pluses that I can look back at to bolster my self-esteem. And the lack of potential achievements on my horizon leaves the achiever in me feeling pathless.
But if I place all meaning in my life into telic activities, meaning will always be behind or in front of me, never with me in the present moment.
My telic to-do list makes me think that I’ve settled for less, and I still think I have. But being present means valuing atelic activities as achievements, too. Instead of aiming for mastery of a topic I want to understand and wondering if I’ll succeed or fail, I can recognize that learning anything at all about the topic is its own achievement as I’m in the midst of learning it. Instead of viewing relationships as projects, I can recognize that every moment I spend with a friend is its own end. My achievements this year won’t be recognized by Dean’s Lists or accepted into conferences, but if I can recognize them in myself, maybe I can settle into this new kind of life.