Throughout my life, I have been constantly and mercilessly asked, “What will you do?” Generally, this question was meant to refer to a career choice, and was typically preceded by, “Where will you go to college?”, “What will you study?”, and “Where will you live?”. Up until the last year, I (reluctantly) went with it. This is how most societies function, and these are the utilitarian and convenient norms that facilitate its existence. I see now, though, that this is absolute rubbish.
Why is the emphasis placed on a role in a system, while the soul and all of its beautiful components are neglected and left to die. “Who will you be?”, “What will you learn?”, “How will you help?” These are the important questions, and the ones that can inspire and ignite a passion for something, as opposed to promoting anxiety through pervasive pressure to make concrete life plans. Don’t get me wrong: I, too, loved to dream about what I’d be when I grew up- this periodically changed from a vet to the sixth Spice Girl (American Spice?), a writer to a prosecution lawyer, and concluded with my decision to study psychology and become a drug rehabilitation therapist. I very much enjoy reminiscing about the time when I told one of my grandmas what I had decided to study: she began banging her forehead on the kitchen table and saying, “Why! Why! Why! All doctors are quacks!” (love my grandma…she doesn’t believe in modern medicine much). Making a supposed life-long decision at 17 years old sounds a bit insane, doesn’t it? Especially considering that the frontal lobe, which is responsible for logic, reasoning, and decision-making, isn’t fully developed until you are in your early to mid twenties (Thank you, psych. degree). It all goes back to the role that you play in order to benefit the system and keep yourself busy. More often than not, one of the first things that someone tells you about themselves when you meet them is what they do from 9 to 5 during the week; they (maybe inadvertently) define themselves by it. If who I am is defined by my progression up the ladder of the workforce, I would be described as follows: cashier, receptionist, server at a retirement home, official popcorn burner, field supervisor, direct care provider, university student, and English teacher. Boring, lame, soulless, no-one-really-cares-esque yeah? Thought so.
A major step in this suppression of the soul comes in the form of depreciation of abstract creativity. When a school district needs to make budget cuts (at least in the U.S.), what are always the first programs to get the boot? The arts and music. And why? So that kids can score higher in a Math that they’ll never use on a standardized test that in no way represents intelligence or potential. I’m not hating on education: education is awesome and enlightening, when practiced under the right conditions and for the right purposes. I went to college, I enjoyed what I learned, and I don’t plan to ever use my degree. I’ve thought about this topic for quite a while, but only began to truly conceptualize it when I moved to Korea a week ago (Thanks Laura and Melissa for your inspiriting conversation). In Korea, children’s lives seem to be pretty much completely planned out from the moment that they are conceived, regardless of future dreams, desires, and talents. It’s a very functional and success-driven culture, so there isn’t much room for anything else but obedience and submission to the “rules”- a co-worker explained the historical reasons for this, but I won’t go on about that now. Although I was warned about the social norms here in regards to work and study habits, that didn’t make it any less heartbreaking when I met my students. The children go to school all day, then on to various academies all night to perfect their English, Math, and other various academic skills. They work harder than most adults I know, and appear exhausted and depressed frequently. Speaking of depression, I read that South Korea has the second highest rate of suicide in the world…making the connection? The children appear to lack the ability to think creatively, when they are meant to be at the most imaginative age! When I asked my middle school students where they could go if they could go anywhere, they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave Korea to see things “just because”. Totally sad; it’s officially my goal for the next year to break this, and at least give them 150 minutes a week to think completely about themselves and their dreams, whatever they may be.
Someone once told me about an article written by a hospice nurse, in which she stated the number one regret revealed by people on their deathbeds. Any guesses? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”. Take this to heart. I’m not trying to instigate a debate about why we need money, why we need to work, why some people have better opportunities than others. No, all I’m saying is, think about these things. If you are truly and honestly satisfied with your life and who you are, awesome. Share your secrets to success with the majority of the population, those who are left feeling unfulfilled. Take time to think about yourself and what you can do to better your life for you- you’re not just a tax ID number. Do things “just because”- this is neither Zamyatin’s nor Orwell’s dystopian society unless we make it that way. Personally, I’m an unceasingly dissatisfied person, and I’ve decided to use this to my advantage. If you don’t like how your life is going, change it. It’s that simple (I realize it doesn’t sound very simple). Even small tweaks to your day can improve the quality of your life- everyone has 10 minutes. No excuses, no rationalizations, no bullshit. Change it. You only have one life.
Who will you be?