A Delicate Balance

As nice as it can be to have time off, I must say that it feels good to be back at work. Settling back into a routine, (working towards) being productive and seeing familiar coworkers again all lend me the feeling of being at least somewhat useful in a way that sleeping in, watching daytime TV and catching up on leisure reading just can’t.

This is not to say that there’s no value in free time—just that its value is more apparent when it’s limited to small doses. All you have to do is talk to someone who hasn’t been working for a few weeks or more to confirm that. As much as I hate getting up early, I’m grateful that I have a good reason to be doing it in the first place.

You may not have been in a position where you were able to take a break from work long enough that you actually felt like going back. However, we’ve pretty much all been exposed to the glory of the summer holiday during school. The “good old days”: the two months that children pretty much exist for and parents fear beyond measure. That was what it was all about, childhood.

In adolescence, though, those long summer breaks started to lose some of their lustre. The weeks spent at the family cabin or on trips to theme parks slowly turned into parents subtly and not-so-subtly urging you to, yes, get a job. All the while your tastes became more expensive and you started to get tired of not having any money. Summer vacation—that once shining beacon of childhood innocence—had somehow transformed into an annual reminder of adult responsibilities and accountability.

Ah, the loss of innocence: you are an entire literary theme unto yourself. But that’s somewhat of a departure from my original thoughts. Summer vacations can be both great and grueling, but by the end of them, most students are looking forward to getting back to school, even at a young age. Why is this?

The simplest answer to this question, I think, is that we all need purpose in our lives. School provides students with a purpose—something for them to do—even if they don’t see the point or if they think their studies will be useless in the future. There is a structure and a routine and things are supposed to make sense, to fit into a greater framework. The immediate reaction to that structure being removed is usually very positive. Freedom feels good, after all. But it is only a matter of time (and this will vary from person to person) until that freedom becomes more akin to aimless wandering. Most people want a sense of direction, and they’ll start to go to drastic measures to create one, or the sense of one, if left wandering long enough. You may be familiar with the name Viktor Frankl, the existential theorist. He wrote a great deal on the relationship between freedom and responsibility in a short book called Man’s Search For Meaning. The bottom line is that each becomes meaningless in the absence of the other.

So, even though we’re in the middle of summer and it’s much too early to be talking about “back to school,” it’s worth thinking about what kind of balance you’re establishing between those two constructs in your life, and how that varies over the course of the year. You should be able to tell when you’re under too many restrictions, the same as you will know when there are too few for you to establish any focus. There may be times when the scale is tipped way to one side, and you have to do something drastic to tip it the other way. Barring depression or other health concerns, if you’ve ever spent consecutive days without getting out of your pajamas, it’s likely that you’ve done it to address that balance.

So, while I sort through my overcrowded work inbox, while I catch up on all the various projects that got put on hold, and while I set my alarm to 6:30 a.m. once again, I don’t feel bad. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s all we can do sometimes to take note of it and think about small steps to get back on track.

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