Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis wrote something so telling about the human condition that I remember it vividly while the rest of the book, although I remember the pleasure of reading it, I do not at all recall. The memorable passage referred to the expectation, when a task is completed or a challenge met, that there will be an abiding sense of satisfaction, even joy. He goes on to describe the failure of that expectation. Instead of lasting satisfaction, the positive feeling is of remarkably short duration, to be followed almost immediately with "What's next?"
This hit home powerfully for me.
This morning I finished a task - two tasks actually - projects in my never-ending list of family history books. One was the last stage of work on a book about the farewell party we had here for my brother. He had asked for a family gathering to be organized, knowing he had little time left and wanting to see everyone while he could know them. We took a great many pictures, and together with captions, and a few pictures from his earlier life, and memories of him written by several of the family, a book of the event emerged. The book was printed off in 20 copies, and yesterday David finished binding the copies.
At the same time he bound the smaller number of copies of "my" book on Angkor Wat, Cambodia. This is a book of the pictures taken by my brother Barry when he visited Angkor Wat in October 2009. It has always been a place of fantasy for me and I asked him to be lavish in picture-taking for me as well as himself. My thought that only one copy would be made - for me - had to be discarded; several were made at the requests of various members of the family, and now this book too is printed and bound and into its mailing packages.
The point here is that my joy and satisfaction at completing these two projects were indeed momentary emotions. Jonathan Haidt hit the nail on the head. I have thought that perhaps there will be a more substantial feeling of satisfaction once I complete ALL the family projects on the list, but every time I shorten the list by one, or by two projects as today, three or more arise, demanding my attention.
I suppose I could just tell myself that nothing will be added to the list until all present projects are complete, but I don't seem to be able to go at it that way. While I am working on one project (more likely several) I do NOT resist discovering new areas of family history and realizing that books need to be made about them. In consequence the list never shortens.
While writing today to cousins delinquent in sending me their memories of our shared grandparents (this is the next of "What's next?") I realized that another book is crying out to be made, of the letters my mother and her siblings exchanged after they had all married and gone their geographically but not emotionally separate ways. So there it is, two books finished, a new one identified, and still 22 more in the list in various stages.
So why is it that I cannot take more than the briefest of pleasure out of finishing two books. With the total completed now numbering 25, all I can see is the 22 on the list yet to be written.
These reflections lead to some serious questions about my expectations with respect to RETIREMENT! This is retirement? I work at my projects for at least 8 hours a day (scattered over 15 or 16 hours.) I will be 75 this year, and while I am in reasonable health I find that my cognitive sharpness is declining. How long am I going to be able to continue working on the family books I so powerfully see as my mission in retirement to produce? The sense of urgency is at times overwhelming, and is not helped by being still in my first five years after cancer treatment. AS Omar Khayam has it, "The bird of time has but a little way to flutter, and the bird is on the wing."