Thursday, March 03, 2005


I was obsessed last night by a creative project. I crave those rare, blissful moments of obsession, that all-encompassing feeling of concentration, not knowing what will come next, not being able to tear myself away until I see the result, and then starting the cycle all over again to make my project even better than it was before and even better than it needs to be. I used to indulge in this kind of behavior fairly often, but it's more difficult since I became a mother. (At the beginning of motherhood, of course, the baby was my all-encompassing obsession. Only it was different with a living breathing human being. A creative project, to be sure, but one with its own volition, so impossible for me to feign control. Mothering is more like mentoring or moderating than authoring.)

Last night was different, I was entranced, on a higher plane and I want to remember that feeling, that side of myself that has been dormant these last few years of constant interruptions.

I read this article in American Scientist last week called "The Soul of Science" by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of The Science of Good and Evil. Schermer theorizes about how our brains evolved to enjoy moral behavior, to feel satisfaction when helping others or learning on a plane higher than that which is actually necessary for survival. He illustrates this with a pyramid, a "hierarchy of needs and moral values" starting at the bottom with THE INDIVIDUAL and progressing up through THE FAMILY, THE EXTENDED FAMILY, THE COMMUNITY, THE SOCIETY, THE SPECIES, and ending with THE BIOSPHERE. "The natural progression of this upward trend is to perceive societies as part of the human species and the human species as part of the biosphere." (120, American Scientist, v93)

He then goes on to hypothesize various things people do that bring them deep satisfaction as well as benefit society. His list includes:

  • Deep love and family commitment
  • Meaningful work and career
  • Social and political involvement
  • Transcendence and spirituality

He gives an example from his life, saying, "my own journey up the pyramid began with falling in love, parenting a child and making the commitment to place family before self. The immeasurable joy generated by the most quotidian of family functions reinforces this commitment on a daily basis. Even with unlimited wealth, I would continue my career no differently because I have been fortunate enough to find a profession that offers more than just personal gain."

I was interested in this article because I am at a crossroads and have been looking for that sense of deep satisfaction. And evolutionarily speaking, taking care of my genetic offspring should give me great satisfaction. But lets just say that last night, my offspring got a can of soup from their father for dinner, as I was happily obsessed. In that instance, "meaningful work" was more important to me and more satisfying than caring for my family.

Somehow, the obsessive kind of behavior I indulged in is not that acceptable in mothers or even in women. It is the kind of behavior that is seen as unfeminine, unmotherly, or even ugly in women. But it is readily acceptable in men. Men---or the men in my life---are often protected from interruption by their spouses, secretaries and other assistants. Moms, on the other hand, are inherently interruptible.

I just don't think Michael Shermer has been a mother. It seems that a balance between "deep love and family commitment" and "meaningful work and career" has come rather easily to him. Shermer goes on in his article to spell out a "principle of happiness:"

It is a higher moral principle to always seek happiness with someone else's happiness in mind, and never seek happiness when it leads to someone else's unhappiness

and a "principle of liberty:"

It is a higher moral principle to always seek liberty with someone else's liberty in mind, and never seek liberty when it leads to someone else's loss of liberty

But on a very basic level, this is nearly impossible for a mother. You can't please all the people all the time. Every day mothers make innumerable calculations and compromises between their happiness and other's happiness, their liberty and other's liberty. You could argue that this juggling is the ultimate in meaningful work, but at times it seems a Sisyphean task. I wish it were as simple as Shermer suggests. Perhaps one of you has a better suggestion of some basic rules to help find greater satisfaction, happiness, and liberty.

Sometimes I feel like I am a genetic misfit---due to my obsession and lack of recent vigilance, the house is in disarray, people can't find things, the laundry is piling up---or maybe, understandably, from time to time, I just crave more balance and variety in my life. And when I exercise that option, it necessarily impacts more people than it used to, not all of that impact positive. But maybe that is good in the end, dragging my offspring up the pyramid to see that they are not the center of the universe and can enjoy the happiness of others. Or maybe, as it is a pyramid, it is modeling the idea of spending most of your time on yourself as a base and less and less, but still some, time at these higher levels that take into account more and more of the world. Not an equal balance, but weighted towards yourself and those closer to you.

Right now, what I know is that I crave the kind of thinking that takes me outside of myself and even outside of my immediate family. It felt good.

But enough of this, I must go excavate the playroom and fold more laundry.

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