Monday, December 15, 2008

The Fruit of the Matter

In the many, many discussion I have had with fellow adolescents about what the heck we are going to do with our lives, I’ve noticed a few trends. The first of these is that none of us really has any clue. The second, the even more universal and poignant commonality to all of our young, idealistic fledgling life plans, is simply this: we all just want to matter. As usual, this has inspired some questions for me: What is behind our compulsion to matter? Do adults who have already made their contributions to society feel like they matter, or is this desire (like so many that college students have) one that we grow out of?

There are, of course, innumerable things that could drive a person to want to make a difference. It could be a natural altruism and desire to help people, if you believe human nature is like that, or it could be something that one’s religion stipulates. But besides those obvious answers, why do we (meaning, I) try so hard to make a lasting impact on the people around us, and the world at large?

My guess is this: we need to exist to people other than ourselves. Even though we might believe that humans are benevolent creatures, we are also afraid we aren’t, and that life really is “poor, nasty, bruteish, short.” During our lives on earth we are drawn to careers that have a deep and meaningful impact on a great number of people. In criticism to my scathing indictment of children who want to be famous, a fellow young friend wrote, “The struggle to be famous and the struggle to be remembered are quite possible one of the greatest struggles of our time. If our names are not carried on past our deaths, our existence on this Earth is forgotten and quite possibly fruitless.” And I have to agree with this, at this point in my life. I want to have a meaningful impact on a great number of people, and I’d like to be well known. At my age, I do judge my potential future life by how many people I have touched and changed. I am afraid of being lost and forgotten in the apathetic anonymity that life looks like from here. I want to choose my career and my life path so that I am known and remembered, because that is the only way that I can qualify my life right now.

I sometimes hope that this desire to make a heartfelt difference in other people’s lives is a sign that we know that there is more to life than money (which is what all young idealists like myself want to believe). However, as deeply as we want to make a difference, there are precious few who are signing up to become Mother Therese, or even go into low-paying but “rewarding” (in respect to my argument) careers, like teaching. College students are misguided to tie their financial solvency in with their impact on others. I have to believe that every older person feels like they make a lasting difference, or they have another way to feel that their life isn’t fruitless.

When I ask my peers who matter most them, when I ask myself who matters most to me, the answer is far humbler than our aspirations. The most common answer: our parents. My parents have certainly taught me the most and touched me the most deeply, and I read that “mom” is the most commonly given answer when kids are asked who their heroes are. So why is it that any young girl who says she wants most to be a mother met with such deep scorn? And I have virtually never heard a young guy list “be a father” as something they want to accomplish by the time they’re thirty. If all we want is to make lasting difference on people that will carry our names on after our deaths, families are absolutely the best way. We have tricked ourselves into believing that our jobs must be dramatic and sweeping and glamorous or they are worth nothing, and that dreams beyond the workplace are worth nothing at all. What young people fail to realize is that one’s job doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) be the measure of one’s life.

As such, I must conclude that we will grow out of clamoring so desperately for a way to feel like we matter. I will someday cease to care that I’m not a World Famous Life Changer, because I will have other things that satiate my need to connect and rescue me from the vast unknown. That’s my answer to the argument: we shouldn’t care if our names are carried on after our deaths. We can matter for people, exist for people other than ourselves, without the mass fanfare and fan base that we adolescents so deeply desire. We just need to change our definition of what it means to matter, and realize that the fruit of life is much more subtle and sweet than any of us could have guessed.

I think there’s a name for this, what is it called? Oh, yes. Maturity. And I, for one, have a long way to go.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mistaking “I Miss You”: A Common Phrase Misapprehended and Misconstrued

As I would imagine is natural when one grows up, I have rather suddenly found myself far apart from quite a few people I like quite a lot. I have never moved and I hold tight to people I love, so it is a strange and unfamiliar feeling to be apart from my old friends for so long at a time, and naturally, I miss them. But as I have been trying, somewhat desperately, to stay in touch with these friends and keep my relationships with them ‘the way that they were’, it has me thinking: what does it mean to miss someone?

In my musings on the subject, I have come up with the following articulation of what ‘missing’ is: when you miss someone, you feel a desire to be with them. If I assume, for the sake of making my point, that we are all essentially selfish beings, this is usually a desire for the person you miss to be where you are currently (that is, one generally does not hope, when we miss someone, to be with them where they are, at least at our basest level). This desire fails to account for the other person, at least as a casual emotion. By this logic, missing someone is a selfish impulse, in the same vein as jealousy, or greed. So not only does my missing someone accomplish nothing other than making me sad, it is also a disservice to the other person (whom I assume already knows I care enough to miss them). At least as a feeling and an impulse that is not acted on, the sadness one feels in relation to not being around one’s faraway friends is self-serving and accomplishes nothing much, for even telling someone “I miss you” just pulls them into your foolish sorrow. But what can be done? Even knowing what it means to miss someone doesn’t make me miss them less. It doesn’t make Phoenix or Miami or Seattle or Boston or wherever any closer to me.

But even here, I am selfish: I fail to realistically imagine that my friends are happy without me; in my wish that Seattle or wherever be closer to here, I am considering the situation only from my own viewpoint. Once when I was at a book signing, the author of the book was trying to explain the importance of seeing people as they are and not seeing them as they relate to us. When he was expressing his apologies that he had to end the event because he had a plane to catch, nearly everyone in the audience told him that he didn’t have to go, he should stay here, it would be better anyway. These sentiments, he said, while flattering, were just we Arizonans failing to realistically imagine and understand the people who were waiting for him where his plane was going. They wanted him to be there, for their own selfish reasons, just as much as we wanted him to stay here. Missing someone is sort of like that: it’s selfish in that it expresses much more about the person doing the missing than it does about the person being missed. I don’t think I explained that exactly clearly, but hopefully I get the point across. I am not trying to do a disservice to people who are missed, or say that I am not missed or shouldn’t be. However, I am pointing out that we need to think about what we say, what it means, and how it affects the person we say it to.

I also think that it is generally implied in telling someone you miss him or her that you will someday be together again. Even many of the people I talk to and certainly many that I miss, I may never see them again (which is why I am limiting this post to friends, not family, who I am almost certainly going to see again). Does this mean that missing them is going to be my current state, in regards to so many dear friends of days in the past? I don’t want to be selfish, or to bring them into my silly sadness, or to fail to realistically understand the people I don’t see regularly. It just seems so pessimistic and ungenerous to say, “Well, it was good times, have a good life.” But it is more honest and more realistic than my self-serving and self indulgent impulse to look at my faraway friends only as they relate to me.

The true virtue in missing someone is in its quiet expression of care. Missing people, be it selfish or not, is what keeps us writing letters, sending emails, mailing Christmas cards, years after it becomes clear that missing each other is our constant state. When we (or at least, I) miss someone, we are not trying to be selfish or misunderstand the people we miss. The only thing I can think of to be done is to more clearly express what I mean when I say, “I miss you.” And I think what everyone is trying to express is simply that: care.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Epiphanies(?) on Decisions(!)

Almost a year ago from right now, I was in the middle of making what I considered at the time to be the Biggest Decision of My Life. I thought that I was going to decide the fate of the rest of the rest of my life by choosing where I went to college, what I majored in, and other exceptionally inconsequential decisions. Adolescent Society (or at least, my high school guidance counselor) had told me that I had to know who I was, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, and who I wanted to become, all as a an oh-so-worldly-and-knowledgeable senior in high school. Now that I have made said decisions and am living the life I dreamed of (and dreaded) lo those many months ago, I have learned one or two things about right and wrong decisions. I will be the first to admit that none of them have gotten me any closer to being a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or a small-time con artist or whatever it was, in my hubris and my naivety, I decided I was going to be.

One of the first non-sequitors I realized about this Life Altering Decision I supposedly made is that nothing is as life-altering as they tell you it will be. From the way college brochures and teen magazines tell it, mass fanfare will accompany a correct decision and mass destruction will follow an ‘incorrect’ one. I believed them, of course, as much agony ensued on choosing right. But now that I have made the decisions, and am living with them, it’s certainly not so clear-cut. Of course college is fun, but it’s hardly the striped-scarfed, colored-leafed Tree of Knowledge OR the party-a-night drunken tomfoolery the movies portray (and that I believed. Was high school like the movies? No. Did that stop me from believing what the movies had to say about college? Well.). I think I’ve made the right decision, I’m certainly learning and having fun, but really the only moment that’s ‘taken my breath away’, as the saying goes, is when I tripped and fell on the stairs outside my dorm. Maybe I’m anomaly and other people do feel an immediate sense of The Right Decision. But as wrong as I was in believing it, it is wrong for society (that is, the SAT and college guides and teen magazines and high schools and the entire industry that has sprung up around The Decision) to make that Decision into anything more than it is. Here is what it is: not much. A choice of snow over sun, mostly. Maybe of prestige over price, or of urban over suburb. But it is decidedly NOT a choice of success over failure, no matter where you end up. (Did I believe the people who told me this, that one year ago? Ahem.)

As for the career choice – does anyone get to say, “I want to be that” and automatically be it? It is a curious thing to ask a five-year-old what they want to be when they grow up (why do we do this?), but an even curioser thing to ask an eighteen-year-old. What does either know of what his chosen profession is, or what is will take to get into that profession? Countless children of both ages have said they want to be doctor – but that does not make them one. Toys and make-believe generate their concept of what a doctor is: play doctor kits or television hospital dramas. Such a choice may be underscored by a love of science, or a desire to help sick people, but there are many people who are not doctors with that. A major means little to nothing about what you will become, in my (admittedly limited) experience. Why is there such a pressure to choose what work we will do, precisely? I am by no means advocating not having a job; I am merely pointing out that what one wants to be is hardly ever what one actually becomes. It is not wrong or undignified to do work that isn’t exactly what you said you wanted to be when you picked your major, and I might even say it is necessary and sometimes inevitable. I want as much as anyone to ‘turn out okay’, but just when does one ‘turn out’? I will strive to become what I thought I wanted to be, what I dreamed of being, but I might learn that it isn’t right for me or just isn’t possible. It is no fault of mine to have a job that is different form what I thought I wanted to do when I was a senior in high school, making the Decision of a Lifetime, and I am beginning to learn that it just may be a virtue.

While I was foolish for being taken in by the shiny, attractive claims that my Life was in my oh-so-capable hands when I picked where to go to college and what to major in, the industry surrounding mine and my peers’ belief in those erroneous epithets is really who’s at fault. High schools seniors are already arrogant and self-righteous – no one needs to be giving them more power, more choice, or more control than they already have, be it authentic or not. Adolescents deserve to be told what is real and true about life, not coddled and cajoled by advertisers or schools or high school guidance counselors trying to curry money or favors or whatever abstract thing it might be that an eighteen-year-old might have to give. So here is what it is, advice to my year-ago self that I certainly wouldn’t have believed: Life is not so dramatic as a movie, and neither is college. Saying you want to be something does not make you any closer to actually being it. Not becoming what you said you wanted to be isn’t a vast tragedy, it’s just life. I can only hope that, a year from now, I will have grown and learned enough to look back on my current self with as much benevolent head-shaking, and maybe this time, I’ll be able to listen to advice.