In this little exercise in analytic existentialism, I’m going to contrast two kinds of stories we can live through, and suggest that the transition from one to the other is both something most of us will experience and a major challenge for finding our lives meaningful. In the sphere of personal relationships, the first kind of story is exemplified by Jane Austen’s novels (among many others), and the second by the setup of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (among others). I’ll label them Adventure and Service, respectively. Though we’re at least culturally conditioned to prefer the first, there is meaning to be found in both – but perhaps only on condition that we succeed in each of them.
Let’s start with the characteristics of Adventure. In lived storylines (or projects, if you will) of this type, we face a challenge that requires us to set ourselves a temporally distant aim, which typically gets specified as the story moves along. It could be finding a spouse, as in the Jane Austen novels, or it could be getting a degree, or getting a job, or finding a treasure. Apart from the last, virtually all of us are faced with one or more of these challenges when we’re young adults (and, increasingly, again later in life). To reach the aim, we need to have some idea of how to get there and take action guided by it – the aim is that for the sake of which we do many other things. In Adventures, achieving the aim is difficult, so we’re likely to need to make the most of our abilities, and nevertheless fail before we succeed, if we ever do. We need to revise our plan and perhaps adjust our aim to a more realistic level. We’ll need the help of friends, teachers, and mentors, and are faced with competitors and even enemies. If we finally succeed, it’s a cause for celebration and pride. Along with the narrative arc built up of the events that pertain to our aim, there’s a characteristic emotional arc of the Adventure, with a big pay-off at the end.
What I’m calling Service storylines are very different. It is, indeed, difficult to see them as stories, given how prominent the Adventure variant is in our fictions and histories. This is because the aim that is pursued in them is different. They don’t involve a prospective aim of bringing about some future outcome, but a reflexive aim of performing an activity well (enough). (This distinction goes back to Aristotle, and Kieran Setiya has made use of a similar distinction for similar purposes, as I recently discovered.) One paradigm Service storyline is child-rearing. Every day, you get up before you’d like, you make breakfast, you take a child to school, you play with the other kid, you cook, you wash, you put to sleep. The next day, you do it again. The story ‘arc’ isn’t linear, but cyclical, and you know it.
The Service shape is by no means restricted to domestic activities, but characterizes most working lives as well. You go to the office or factory or farm or restaurant, and you make the same sort of contribution to the same sort of project. This doesn’t have to be boring or repetitive – your job might require a lot of creativity – but because the storyline you live through isn’t one of linear progress, it will involve different emotions even in the best case. It will not feature the excitement and thrill of the chase or the joy of finally making it. While you will face external challenges, a lot of them are internal instead, and there’s less drama in overcoming them.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary couldn’t handle the Service story. She was raised on romances, and expected her life to be an Adventure through and through. But romantic fictions (even the good ones, like Jane Austen’s) end with the marriage celebration and ringing church bells, or with the conquest of the evil enemy. And life doesn’t. Emma Bovary hadn’t learned from her novels how to live happily ever after – after all, they didn’t say anything about that. She couldn’t adjust to Service with a child and husband, so she began to seek out the thrill of Adventure in adultery.
I think we are, culturally, in Madame Bovary’s predicament. Not all of us, of course, respond in the same way. But the fictions we consume – the narratives we use to imagine how our lives might go – are overwhelmingly of the Adventure type, from Bridget Jones and David Copperfield to Harry Potter and Star Wars. This makes good sense, since when we’re young, we really do need to embark on Adventures and need all the help we can get to envisage our options, and when we’re older, we welcome the escape and re-living the excitement (which we might not have had as much of as we wished in real life).
The downside is that many of us find it hard to adjust to the reality of Service. Like Emma Bovary, we may feel that there is something missing in our lives. So let me try to reassure you that Service is worthwhile and meaningful. By calling this sort of segment of life story ‘Service’ I don’t mean that it involves serving someone else (though that is often the case), but simply that it aims at upkeep and maintenance of a good thing rather than getting a good thing in the future. Service does involve many individual actions that are directed toward future goals. They just don’t get their point from reaching that temporally distant goal. It is silly or worse to hang your self-worth as a parent on delivering a healthy and well-adjusted 18-year old at the end of it, or as an academic on publishing that book. Nursing a child’s wound has a point in virtue of realizing right now the value of the parent-child relationship, which only exists in virtue of such actions, and isn’t hostage to what happens in the future.
Often, what happens is that individual actions realize one value by promoting or honoring another value. Doing a favor for a friend, like picking them up from an airport, promotes her happiness, and in doing so realizes the value of friendship. Indeed, even if you fail to achieve your goal (maybe there’s an accident and you get stuck in traffic), having done your best with a realistic prospect of success arguably suffices to realize the value of friendship. In short, success in reflexive aims will be valuable and worthy of pride if we do perform the activity well at least by criteria that are internal to it, and the activity as a whole realizes or promotes a sufficient amount of some genuine value.
Here’s one good thing about Service that follows from its nature: it’s not as vulnerable to consequential luck as Adventure. If you are a good parent today, it’s already in the bag, whatever happens tomorrow. Today’s success is a praiseworthy achievement on its own, and thus merits pride and self-esteem. If, on the other hand, you failed today, it’s not as if you missed your one shot at the gold medal. You’ll get another chance tomorrow. (Then again, you can’t rest on your laurels either; you will have to do it again tomorrow.) Related to this, the notion of progress towards a goal takes on a different meaning. It’s not that you get closer to bringing about the desired state of affairs, but that you become better at the activity – you already realized the aim to some degree before, but now you realize it better.
Another point in favor of Service is that many Adventures simply can’t end well unless they result in successful Service. Suppose you struggle for years and finally make it to the Iron Throne. After the fireworks are over, you’re faced with the task of governing the Seven Kingdoms. If you make a mess of it, there was never much point in your becoming the king (or queen) in the first place. Similarly, it’s not worth pursuing the hand of the man or woman of your dreams if you end up failing at the myriad mundane activities on which the value of a loving relationship supervenes.
Perhaps what I’ve said will sound obvious to some. But I do think that many of us are easily ensnared by the temptations of Adventure and the emotional rewards it promises. It takes a little more effort to feel good about Service – perhaps in part because complete success doesn’t consist in bringing about something concrete, but rather in elusive perfection that is perhaps impossible to achieve and sustain. Yet if we perform Service activities well enough and manage to see the worth of doing so, the reward is the kind of calm and settled happiness we can see Jiro Ono, the protagonist of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Jiro is an 85-year old sushi master, who has for decades run a small subway station sushi place, which just happens to have three Michelin stars. He is very clearly the opposite of an Adventurer. Here’s what he has to say: “Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success…” With the proviso that not everyone can find an occupation that is worth perfecting, and that Adventure has its place in a balanced life, there is something to be said for this attitude.6