Unlimited time for myself

This anecdote has meant so much to me in the 20+years since I first read it that I am surprised I haven’t posted it here before. It appears at the very beginning of The Miracle of Mindfulness, where writer Thich Nhat Hanh recounts a visit he had with his friend Allen.

“Is family life easier than being a bachelor?” I asked. Allen didn’t answer directly. But I understood. I asked another question: “A lot of people say that if you have a family you’re less lonely and have more security. Is that true?” Allen nodded his head and mumbled something softly. But I understood.

Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.

“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

I don’t remember if this was a brand new thought to me when I first read it, but it was close to that. I don’t know if it was the anecdote itself that radically changed my thinking about how to live life properly, but it came at about the same time that my thinking changed. Regardless, it encapsulates two things I came to believe deeply:

  • Life is all about living for the sake of others
  • That’s where you’ll find your happiness
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5 thoughts on “Unlimited time for myself

  1. This was interesting to read. While I respect your view, I disagree. However, I think as with many blanket prescriptions, that it depends a great deal on what one actually does. Those who spend a great deal of their time living for others may be in a position to consider this advice differently than those who spend almost none of their time doing so.

  2. Servetus,

    All I can do is testify to my own experience, and as with all such testimony Your Mileage May Vary. For a long, long time now my goal has been to always put the interests of everyone else first when I make a decision or choose a direction, and I think I meet that goal consistently, if not perfectly. Meanwhile, I have never had a problem finding happiness within the constraints that goal has imposed on me.

  3. I realized after I posted that you might think I was criticizing your experience, which I am not. People come to certain conclusions after having experiences, and not all experiences are the same or even mean the same thing to people who experience them at the same time. I’ll just say I think it works better if everyone else in the situation also applies those constraints on their decisionmaking. “Living my life solely for others” (I’ve done it three times for periods between eighteen months and three and a half years) has been a personal disaster for me every single time. Besides making me unbearably unhappy in the end, it has also had long-term negative consequences. That doesn’t distinguish it from “living my based solely on my needs,” which has also been a problem, albeit in different ways that have been somewhat less destructive in my own life. (I also think there are gender factors operative here.) My personal motto nowadays when facing a decision that requires personal sacrifice for others is “my oxygen mask on first.” If that’s in place, then I can “live for others” in good conscience without it being self-destructive.

  4. Servetus,

    I didn’t take it as a criticism. And I definitely agree with this:

    My personal motto nowadays when facing a decision that requires personal sacrifice for others is “my oxygen mask on first.” If that’s in place, then I can “live for others” in good conscience without it being self-destructive.

    I don’t think I’ve ever chosen a path that was personally damaging in order to benefit someone else. But I have tried to get as clear as possible regarding the distinction between personal damage and mere preference.

  5. In two of the situations, the possible negative outcome was known to me before I got on that path, so it didn’t lead to regret of any kind. I knew what definitely would, or could very likely, happen, and I went into it aware that I was intentionally making the sacrifice and there would be costs (albeit not fully cognizant of how bad certain consequences would be, which has been a problem, but in retrospect, so to speak). If I had to make both of those decisions again, even with an accurate awareness of what would definitely happen, I would make the same ones. In the third situation, I was intentionally trying something out that I hadn’t figured would be as negative as it turned out to be. But I certainly learned something. I would never make that decision again.

    Definitely agree with you regarding “personal damage vs mere preference,” and that’s actually something that’s become clearer to me as a consequence of these periods of sacrifice. Particularly if I am dealing with students, I try not to make any rules that are essentially arbitrary or related to what benefits me most (vs them). To some extent I think there’s also a social contract operating there — as one ages, it can be the case that one becomes more willing to accede to others’ needs. One has more practice, potentially — and with me it’s also the case that I find that having been able to express certain preferences in the past has led me to a situation where they are not that important anymore. All other things being equal, I would prefer “x” outcome, but I have experienced “x” outcome enough that if it doesn’t materialize, it’s not such a big deal.

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