Some people want to experience more than being as happy as they can be in the context of a balanced life. Instead, we yearn to be as happy as anyone could be at any given moment. We despise jobs in our desire for careers, or despise careers in our desire for fulfilling careers. We want an epic marriage to go along with it. If we are not careful, then only winning a Super Bowl of academics, relationships, or business (or football) can give satisfaction. If anybody says we cannot have “it all” in a virtuous life, we challenge natural moral limits instead of learning the joy of moderation.
As a result we develop “sequential monomania.”
Sequential monomania is a rarely-noticed impediment to happy adulthood that occurs in the brightest and best – or at least in those who wish to be the brightest and best. “Monomania” is a marvelous Victorian word for an obsession with one idea or topic, but my generation improved on it by developing “sequential monomania”: we insisted that whatever we do deserves our maximum effort while we are doing it. We move from temporary monomania to temporary monomania, one after another.
Sometimes we call it “multi-tasking,” but do not be fooled. We put several things on our plates and give each task all our attention for tiny moments of time. While doing that task, we yearn to be the “best we can be.” But since this measure is rarely based on real self-knowledge, we’re actually trying to be the the “best humanity can be.” And then we move on to the next thing, with the same impossible desires.
If we see a happily married person, who has been very blessed, we cannot be content with what God has given us, but must work endlessly on our relationships. God forbid that anyone, through other interests or callings, be deprived of what someone, somewhere has had!
Moderns pretend that time is infinite, talent is given out equally, and that mere desire is an indication of calling. If we are not careful, it is easy to forget that becoming very physically fit takes time away from mental fitness just as mental fitness takes time away from exercise. We cannot be as buff as we could be if we had nothing else to do and also be as smart as we could be if we had nothing else to do. God has given each one of us callings and talents, and God has given each of us a limited amount of time.
We can have all that He has given us, all we could ever truly enjoy, but we cannot have all God has given someone else. My friend Peter has pleasures I cannot experience, because I am not Peter. When I demand Peter’s pleasures as well as my own, then I put myself in an impossible situation.
Misery follows. Oddly, many responsible adults, themselves victims of sequential monomania, encourage us to rush to our doom.
In school, my soccer coach, theater director, math teachers, and writing instructors all wanted one hundred percent of my effort. A few even dreamed of the mythical “one hundred and ten percent.” Since I was playing soccer and acting for fun, I never gave one hundred percent. If I had, then play would have become work. I do not have three hundred percent to give!
How can we fight sequential monomania? We can do one thing at a time and we can do that thing with the intensity it deserves from us. Before even beginning, we must know ourselves and what God has made us. We must look at our skills, talents, and culture and decide what is possible for us.
Many of us long to be married, but should not marry. Why? Because we are called to dedicate the time that children and a spouse would consume to work, or perhaps because we never meet a worthy partner. Or because we have no inclination to form a family.
A great many of us long to have successful careers, but will never be “great” at our jobs. Why? Because the time that it would take to achieve greatness would take away from other parts of our lives.
To flourish as humans is to achieve a balance: man does not live by bread alone. We must not envy our neighbor who by Providence or talent can achieve what we cannot in the time that he or she has.
True happiness comes when we find the will of God for our lives and do it. It does not come when we demand that God accommodate the cosmos to our bloated desires.
In Paradise, God’s great city, I know this: all the redeemed will be as happy as we can be. Finally I will be me, because I killed my futile and evil visions of self and gave myself to God. I will have crucified my desires to be other than I am and allowed myself to become what He wishes me to be.
I will not pretend that this can be completed this side of Paradise or that all my goods will be experience in this life. I will be patient, grow, give each activity what I can in my God-breathed life, and at the hour of death lay down the burden of uncertainty and finally become fully, absolutely whole.