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On Telic, Atelic, and Sittin’ on the Dock

D’You know that restless, hungry feeling? This general continuous hum of dissatisfaction with the way things are right now, in the present moment?

When happiness and well-being have been hijacked to somewhere ahead, further down the road. To that time in the future, when things will finally get aligned and fall into their rightful place, and then at last you will be able to relax and be happy. Then it will be all right. Sometime later, but not now.


I am sure that the last few years, with their exhaustive collection of restrictions and limitations, weird social gymnastics, and general instabilities have made me spend more time in this headspace. It also made me recognize how uncomfortable this self-absorptive state of mind is. It’s tedious, isn’t it? When we mortgage our self-worth to various kinds of social perceptions that we have no control over.


There are two types, or modes of operation that can add a little context to the management of this state of mind – namely, telic, and atelic activities. Telic activity (from the Greek word ‘telos’, which means ‘end’ or ‘purpose’) is an activity that moves towards a goal. These are our projects, our ongoing plans, the ‘work-in-progress’ category. Relevant as it is, excessive investment in telic activity may condemn us to either forever aim at the future, or when the project is finished – dwell in the past. Always undermining the present moment. Obscuring the value of atelic activities - the activities that don’t have an endpoint or a structure in which satisfaction is deferred to the future. Activities such as having kids, being in a relationship, being with yourself. Atelic activities are realized in the present.


We need, within reason, to be able to detach from where things are heading and what exactly they are going to produce. We need to be able to appreciate simple activities like breathing, walking, or, if you are near the coast, try sittin’ on the dock of the bay.. and don’t be fooled by Otis Reading’s sweet sweet delivery. When he wrote this song, somewhere on a houseboat in Sausalito California in 1967, the Vietnam war was raging, J.F Kennedy’s body was moved permanently to Arlington national cemetery, Dr. King was months away from that fatal visit to Memphis, the US, and the USSR were amassing nukes, and race riots were rampant all over. Maybe it’s cyclical, or some things never change. Best to follow Mr. Reading’s advice, orient ourselves towards the atelic, watch them ships roll in..and enjoy the meanwhile.




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