Pulling a second batch of hot cross buns from the oven having forgotten to add spice to the first batch and essentially making fruity bread rolls I am thinking about the relationship between “settling” and “striving”.
In Oliver Burkeman’s excellent book “Four Thousand Weeks” he posits the argument that “settling” is essential for a rewarding life because it implies the resistance of an urge to be someone other than who you are.
He quotes the political theorist Robert Goodin who argues that striving becomes worthless in the absence of settling because if you can’t be comfortable with who you are and the choices you make you’ll be unable to channel your energies effectively enough to make a success of anything.
For much of my life, I have been more effective at striving than settling.
My daughter says, “I don’t think I’m great at striving. I mostly do things I’m already good at.”
While this is patently untrue I let it go because attention has turned towards teasing my countless examples of a need to strive for improvement.
“All those pancake-shaped loaves of sourdough bread, that time you made a chocolate cake and put courgette in it, the Bakewell tarts when you forget to add jam, or when you put the back of my wardrobe on the wrong way around, or how about the time you forget the bike rack was on the roof and drove straight into the car park barrier?”
“The burgers with too much breadcrumb that tasted like blood-soaked bread in a bun,” my wife chips in.”
Most of these recollections are from more than a decade ago but they are family folklore and evidence of my striving for improvement.
I have found that I mostly improve through trial and error and often struggle with formal instruction. Oh and teamwork, I can’t abide that.
I’m telling my family that during some recent safeguarding training we were split into breakout groups and, on reconvening, had to select someone to feedback on the points of our discussion.
“I volunteered the first time and then wanted to volunteer every time afterwards, not because I wanted to speak but because it frustrates me when other people do it and leave out or miscommunicate things I feel are important.”
I realise this looks like staggering grandiosity but it’s really just that I have trouble settling with other people’s representations of me in whatever format it presents itself.
I appear to have given off the “not settling” vibe throughout my life.
Once, while playing a board game with my then girlfriends family this question came up,
“Which player at the board is most likely to wish he was someone else?”
The answer was unanimous and I’ve carried it like a bruise ever since.
Only through years of self-reflection and therapy did I arrive at the realisation my inability to settle, be it socially, relationally, professionally, or emotionally, was not a rejection of other people, places, or experiences, but of myself.
I often wondered why I enjoyed being on my own while feeling simultaneously lonely until my adult ASD diagnosis and a newfound understanding that isolation might sometimes feel easier but not necessarily more comfortable.
In selecting the life we lead we have to reject the other ones which can be a source of great discomfort. We might spend years paralysed between devoting ourselves to settling and striving in this one and wondering whether we might have been better off doing so in a parallel universe.
In his TED talk “The Paradox Of Choice” Barry Schwartz talks about the ways in which we have been sold the idea of choice as a liberation when it is really the opposite much of the time. Bad enough when you are selecting salad dressing from umpteen options, but when it’s versions of yourself that you are having to leave on the shelf it’s harder still.
So many of my clients are struggling with the desire to be someone that they are not believing it would make them content.
“I just want to be happy,” seems like such a simple expectation but we make the rules about when we can feel happiness.
Walking down the hill towards home this week on a glorious clear-skyed spring morning I could see for miles across town and over the Weald. At that precise moment, I felt grateful to simply have woken up and be alive. When waking up is all I need to feel happiness I’ll get a lot of it all the time I’m breathing.
If, on the other hand, I need the people in my breakout group to feedback according to my precise expectation, never want to feel any anxiety about how I am seen by others, always have to bake a well-risen loaf, and have my children eat chocolate cakes to which I have surreptitiously added vegetables, I’m on much shakier ground.
Part of the problem is that “settling” is often seen as a pejorative when it couldn’t be less so.
In defining “self-actualisation”, perhaps we do ourselves a disservice by thinking of it as the fulfilment of all our potential and ability and instead ought to recognise that an important part of self-actualisation is the acceptance that we will never self-actualise.
While I was writing this piece I found an article entitled “What If You Could Do It All Over” in the New Yorker about why we find unlived lives so alluring.
It reminded me of a “nearly kiss” at a party once when I was in my early twenties and dozens of other seemingly pivotal moments that only appear pivotal from a place of endless ambiguity.
The value of striving is that we continue in the pursuit of all the versions of ourselves that might exist in the future while happily letting go of the ones that did not in the past.
It’s Easter Sunday today this morning I will prepare the Easter Egg hunt as I have done for my now adult children since they were tiny.
This time next year neither of them will be living at home but these little rituals always remind me of something I grow more certain about with every passing year.
In the absence of many certainties in the world and the constant need to make sure “settling” and “striving” exist in some sort of harmony, I am grateful for my family because they are the very best thing about settling and, while they never demand that I strive, they are unfailingly loving and supportive when I do. As long as I don’t put vegetables in cakes.