Telic vs. Atelic Doing
I’m obsessed with doing. I like to get things done. Much like those horrible Fiverr campaigns plastered right now across the NY subway attest, I am a Do-Er:
I even wrote this poem about it:
I am a Do-er.
I Do all the time
I’d rather Be.
But Beings beyond
What I can do.
So I Do
When I’m done,
Till I do some more.
I wish I didn’t.
I won’t do anymore
I mean it.
But I don’t
I wish for
I’m gonna Do
Myself to death.
I want to understand why I constantly feel empty, waiting around for something else to accomplish, another box to check off. So, I read this article in the NYTimes, which opened my eyes to the two types of “doing,” as Aristotle defined them. To quote:
We can distinguish activities of two fundamental kinds. Telic activities — from “Telos,” the Greek word for purpose — aim at terminal states, by which they are completed. Think of reading this article or driving home from work. Once you arrive at the goal, you are finished: The point of the activity has been achieved. You can do it again, but only by way of repetition. Not all activities are like this. Some activities are atelic: They do not aim at terminal states. However much you reflect on life or spend time with your family, you cannot complete these activities. Though you will eventually stop doing them, they do not aim at a point at which there is no more of them to do…When you care about telic activities, projects such as writing a report, getting married or making dinner, satisfaction is always in the future or the past. It is yet to be achieved and then it is gone. Telic activities are exhaustible; in fact, they aim at their own exhaustion. They thus exhibit a peculiar self-subversion. In valuing and so pursuing these activities, we aim to complete them, and so to expel them from our lives.
Atelic activities, by contrast, do not by nature come to an end and are not incomplete. In defining such activities, we could emphasize their inexhaustibility, the fact that they do not aim at terminal states. But we could also emphasize what Aristotle does: They are fully realized in the present. “At the same time, one is seeing and has seen, is understanding and has understood, is thinking and has thought.” There is nothing you need to do in order to perform an atelic activity except what you are doing right now. If what you care about is reflecting on your life or spending time with family or friends, and that is what you are doing, you are not on the way to achieving your end: You are already there.
There you have it. I can imagine a life balanced between Telic and Atelic activities like a sliding scale. Too much focus in either direction is undesirable. I think of the restless ennui I experience towards the end of an Atelic vacation that’s gone on too long, where I’m itching to back to creating and working. Conversely, every day surviving in NY is an onslaught of Telic things to get done — my schedule driven by responding to emails, managing appointments, keeping on top of notifications, and working, working, working to stay afloat of those bills, bills, bills. I’m addicted to the rush of whack-a-molling things to do, and if it weren’t for the now daily ten minutes of mediation I force myself to complete (which, in an overblown sense of time management, I tend to do while riding the subway because I have no other Telic options I could even be doing during that time), I may go an entire day without experiencing an ounce of Atelic “just being.”
Why do I do this to myself? I can’t help that feeling of being driven in my core: needing to accomplish and make something of myself. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but I’ve been tracing it back in therapy to the way I was raised — so fair warning, parents, here we go:
I was a brooding, intense, scared kid — teased at school by my peers as a freak and a faggot and treated like an odd, precocious weirdo by most of my family — all except for my mother. To her, I could do no wrong. I was the golden child, perfect in every way because I was so gifted and talented. When I ran into her arms to saying how the world treated me unfairly, she would tell me it was all someone else’s fault. It could never be my failing because I was so special, and if the world didn’t see it that way, then the world was wrong. I got hooked on her doting. I would fake being sick from school just to skip over to her workplace and spend the day complaining about my problems to her, and she allowed this to happen without consequence. Her adulation extended to any mistake I made or any time my efforts did not pay off. It was misguided of the middle school director not to cast me in the lead role in the play. I was unpopular at school because my classmates were jealous of me. The world was black and white, and I was always right. My mother was the only person I’ve ever met who liked Return of the Jedi more than The Empire Strikes Back because the latter was too complicated and the former had a happy ending (and the Ewoks were cute).
My dad (along with the rest of my family) sat on the sidelines, grimacing over how spoiled and ego-driven I was becoming. According to legend, when I was four years old, my grandpa asked me to help him toss the salad for dinner. I looked this man, who had survived World War II, dead in the eye and said, “No, I won’t. Because I’m special!” My dad wanted to praise my efforts but not every outcome. He knew the word “perfect” was a recipe for disappointment — no one can bat 100. I remember, Sophomore year of college, fishing for compliments from him on my performance as Tony Cavendish in the play The Royal Family, and he wasn’t afraid to gently tell me he thought I was overacting. I appreciated his honesty…and responded the next show by committing even harder and jumping off a balcony mid-swordfight, tripping on the railing, falling horizontally ten feet onto the concrete floor, and landing on my arm. I broke it, but I finished the scene before going to the ER.
My dad didn’t find a way to get through to me as a kid, or maybe I ignored him because my mother’s pull was stronger and easier. I kept him at arms length from my heart. In time, my mother was the sole person who understood me and gave me love — always in response to how much I accomplished. She defined her love for me in terms of my Telic achievements, and I fed my soul by doing as much as I could to prove to her I was as special as she said I was.
When I finally came out of the closet at the end of Senior year of high school (in the most grandiose way possible), the tables turned. For once, I wasn’t expressing myself via a Telic accomplishment. I was sharing the most personal part of me — something Atelic that had nothing to do with execution and all to do with my being: my sexuality. Something I’d struggled to accept my whole life. And my mother rejected it. She was a staunch Catholic and my homosexuality flew in the face of everything she believed.
That rejection left me hollow inside for years. Because I was programmed, by my upbringing, to fill that hollowness with external praise, I responded by doing more and more. At work, I’d grind myself to the bone to please my bosses, to get their approval by wow-ing them with talent and tenaciousness, then whine to my friends how I was overworked. Meanwhile, my mom and I never fully patched up the disintegration of our relationship. As I grew up, she knew me less and less. I could never share, despite my efforts, who I was dating or the personal details of my life. I could list off in our phone calls more and more Telic things I’d accomplished, which she came to understand less and less (although explaining what comedic improvisation is to anyone is a challenge). She just kept telling her patients at her doctor’s office that I was on my way to being a movie star (despite me never having been in a movie). She projected the perfect, brilliant illumination of who I was destined to be: her very own Rock Hudson in the making, taking her to movie premiers one day. My mom eventually passed away, on my birthday, leaving the two of us on opposite sides of a chasm that could never be bridged — two people who knew each other best as consoling mother and idolizing son, and not as complicated adult to adult.
Now, I’m trying to move on. I’m realizing, like that NYtimes article describes, that constant Telic achieving, at the end of the day, leaves me feeling constantly empty. I finish one task, wait, and worry, till I have something else to do. I complete the next thing, only to feel empty once again. I imagine my self-worth like a beautiful basin with a hole at the bottom of it. It keeps dripping out the bottom no matter how much golden water I replenish.
What does help repair the hole, as much as my restless mind rejects it, is Atelic being. Trying to sit with my dog and pet her and not multitask. Turning off my devices and bringing a drink up to the roof and looking at the Manhattan skyline. Taking an Epsom salt bath and listening to Billie Holliday. Tasting and chewing the food I’m usually wolfing down. Chilling out and watching a movie instead of cleaning the house while the movie plays in the background. That’s something my mom used to do also — she’d fold laundry during family movie night instead of watching the movie, saying she’d only relax once “Everything was done.” And then, when she finished, fall asleep during the rest of the movie.
I realize I’m wrestling with an emotional handicap, one in which I’m still trying to prove to my mom’s ghost that I’m living up to these epic standards. One in which I look in the mirror and see only room for improvement. One in which I immediately blame those who “wrong” me as being the ones in the wrong. One in which I act melancholy around my friends, thinking if I just show how sad I am, someone will notice me and make everything better. Ironically, the day my mom passed away on my birthday, and everyone in my whole world reached out to check on me and express their condolences, was one of the most secure times I’ve felt in my life. I felt all that love and laser-focused attention on me like the hug my mom used to give me when I’d run to her office after being bullied at school. It’s amazing to me now, how warm that attention felt, despite how sad I was in inside. I truly do live for other’s approval.
But external adulation doesn’t last. It’s fleeting. It may make me happy, for a time, but the feeling always fades, and I’m left with who I am in the dark, when there’s no spotlight illuminating me. I’ve got to figure out my own way to fill my well, in ways that don’t just involve climbing another rung of an endless ladder I’ve set up as the marker of my life. I need to love myself when I’m doing nothing and when I’m nobody special. I want to love just being little ole’ Atelic me.
Because, at the end of the day, loving yourself and loving how you spend your time, no matter where you are or what you do in life, is one of the only things you have control over. As one of my friends put it to me recently:
The real thing that all of those achievements are there to replicate is loving yourself more. Once you have that, the things you want will happen, and the things that don’t happen you’ll find you don’t really want anyway. But you already know that.