For most of us, life is a constant work in progress. As I wrote in my post about New Year’s resolutions, we typically see a gap between who we are and who we want to be. For many of us, that includes not just ourselves but our life situation. We are constantly looking for ways to make our careers more fulfilling, to pursue our passions, to give more time to our families and friends. As we get older, that can be increasingly challenging. We get busier in our careers and our time dries up. As our families grow and our expenses rises, we become more dependent on our jobs and less willing to make disruptive changes. Life takes on an inertia of its own.
I am wrestling with that right now. I love serving in the Air Force and am committed to my military career, but I have wide-ranging interests and passions that extend beyond my day job. The irony is that many of these passions, like foreign languages and regional studies, are intimately linked to my vision of officership and service to the country–but have virtually nothing to do with my day job. Even reading and writing novels, which on the surface might seem disconnected from military service, is essential; it is through fiction that much of my deepest thinking and personal engagement with world affairs has developed. But because these things are all outside my daily job, the only time I can allocate to them is what I can scrape together outside of work, and those few hours largely belong to my family.
I have bookcases all over my house, but the one immediately beside my desk is given to current projects–the ones I’m most passionate about. Here is an impromptu picture taken this morning:
On the top shelf are the religious and political classics I return to time and again–some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover, and some of which I need to spend more time with. Beside them are several DVD series that I want to watch, to expand my knowledge of history. The second shelf is devoted to Arabic and Turkish. I spent much of the last year learning Turkish, but after a planned trip to Turkey was canceled because of work requirements, I was pretty crushed and stopped studying; I also felt like I was losing my Arabic, because I didn’t have sufficient time to do both. Even now that I’m focusing on Arabic again, I’m struggling to find time to work through any of these resources. The third shelf consists of books I want to read or am currently reading; I am halfway through many of them, but set them down when I got busy. On the right are books about the Mongols and ancient Persian empires, which are research for my next novel. Stacked in front of them are reference books for a nonfiction book I am trying to write about Islam. The stacked DVDs are a Turkish TV series dubbed in Syrian Arabic, for language practice. Finally, the fourth shelf is my writing library. The two books that are pulled and turned sideways are about nonfiction writing and book proposal writing, also for my planned Islam book.
This all might look audacious to someone who thinks I should simply focus on my job. But for someone who is dual-hatted as a Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist and seeks higher-level government service in the future, the bookshelf does make a kind of sense: slow, steady growth in relevant languages, the study of politics and culture and military science, and the ability to translate my knowledge into writing for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, achieving any of this is maddeningly difficult.
I’m not sure why I’m sharing this. Maybe nobody cares, but then again, maybe everybody else can relate and we can at least bond over the cruelty of time.
On the other hand, I have a lot to be thankful for. I’m so grateful I was chosen for the Olmsted scholar program, when I did have abundant time to pursue these passions. As we enter an age of budget cuts and downsizing, I hope the DOD realizes how important these programs are–and what a tremendous education investment is. And as much as I love my current C-17 squadron, I’m looking forward to attending SAASS this summer. I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to read books for a year.