What’s In a Goal?
Once upon a time, I was a philosophy major. Of course by “once upon a time,” I mean about a year ago; and by “I was a philosophy major,” I mean I was a graduate school slave. Regardless of what I did or when it was, a lot of what I learned still sticks with me today. No doubt it will for a long time. So when I came across a blog the other day devoted entirely to ways you can sacrifice for some grandiose (yet undefinable) goal so far down the line that you don’t even know if you will be alive to do that thing that you have not even defined, I turned to my philosophical training to determine whether this blog was legit or just more bad personal ethics our generation seems to be addicted to.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for sacrificing a Starbucks a week so that you can stop charging Christmas presents every year. And I think that saving for retirement is essential in an age when social security is dwindling. But there are those practical things everyone should do to have a more balanced life, and just making yourself completely miserable by sacrificing everything for goals that you, yourself, cannot even truly and specifically determine. On this topic, Speiman said something that will always stick with me in one of his many essays on Aristotle’s ethics and the road to happiness (and I am, of course, paraphrasing): how often is it you attain a goal only to find out that what you sacrificed in the process was not worth it?
What a powerful statement that is. How often is it you attain a goal only to find out that what you sacrificed in the process was not worth it? I think the perfect example of this is in the case of a person that sacrifices everything for their career. Family is put on the backburner, or abandoned altogether; friends are reserved for only when it is absolutely convenient. Personal health is even bargained when stress levels and the toll of physical exhaustion are ignored in the face of career advancement. And on many occasions, what seemed to be the right path ended up being the worst road that could be taken, even a dead end. When I worked in pharmacy, we used to say all the time: “when I’m on my deathbed, I won’t be thinking I wish I had worked just another day in pharmacy…I’ll be saying I wish I had worked just one day less.” Truer words were never spoken.
But it goes beyond that. I had a friend a few years ago that signup up to run in the Chicago marathon. This is a real fad right now: everyone seems to be interested in pushing their physical limit in the name of some vague philanthropic goal. (Kudos to those that do, but the status quo of it all has become a little overkill.) From the get-go, her physical limitations were at odds with her completion of the marathon. Ignoring the advise of her physician that said her already-present back problems would only be worsened by running on a regular basis, she decided she was going to do it no matter what it took. For the five months of training, she was in daily pain – sometimes so bad that prescription strength painkillers did nothing. In the end, she threw her back out a week before the marathon and was unable to run (barely even able to walk). It has been two years, now, and her back problems have only been made worse by her stubborn attempts to defy all the odds. She did not even attain her goal and now contends that even had she it would not have been worth it. … only to find out that what you sacrificed in the process was not worth it…
Speiman’s whole point is that there is a happy medium, what Aristotle called the Golden Mean. On either extremes, there is only suffering. In the case of the work-aholic (what I think is the most relevant for people of the 21st century), on the lower extreme there is unemployment, poverty, and desolation; on the upper extreme there is loneliness, materialism, and a life not well lived. But in the middle – in the compromise, the best of both worlds – there can be goals attained that do not require such life-changing sacrifices. Ultimately, trying to live life so grossly out of balance is like an elephant standing on a beach ball: it may be great for an occasional circus trick, but in the end the elephant just comes toppling down.
How often is it you attain a goal only to find out that what you sacrificed in the process was not worth it? I think the truth to the whole matter is that sacrifice in the strictest sense is rarely a necessity when a healthy balance is always in sight, in everything you do. Thus, I think the only real goal anyone should be working towards is in avoiding that problem altogether. The whole idea of a goal or a sacrifice does seem irrelevant when you consider that in living a life of balance, happiness comes naturally and no sacrifices or goals are even necessary because they have already been achieved.