My 16-year-old niece took the SAT on Saturday. Unlike me, she seems capable of planning her life. Without any regard for my abilities, limitations, or personality, at her age I was impractically focusing on Indian studies, international relations, or even — I’m not sure how this occurred to me — physical therapy. I was certainly not thinking about what I would be doing in six years. I’m told that she has looked into a career that interests her, at least now, and even how much it pays.
What I was going to do with the rest of my life, and how I was going to support myself, didn’t occur to me until the Monday after graduation, and then only because I woke up with nowhere to go for the first time in my life.
That was 23 years ago. As I’ve written elsewhere, nothing has changed, that is, I have not changed. I will retire long before I know what I want to do with my life. I will mostly likely die first, before I have lived.
It was nearly 30 years ago, but I remember what it was like to be 16. I wanted to be liked and respected. I worked hard at my classes. I didn’t think of good grades as a ticket to college; I didn’t think of them at all. They were something to have. At some level, I must have thought of them as a way to get attention and praise — to be noticed, to rise above the hoi polloi. Others were noticed for their athletic abilities, their looks, their personalities, their money, their social standing and relationships, or even their criminal records — all things I didn’t and couldn’t have.
The only thing I could claim were a few limited academic abilities and interests, so I made the most of them.
I also wanted to please my dad. Perhaps because my mother had been left adrift once, he believed that women should have an education, equal opportunities, and the ability to support themselves. We take all that for granted now, but 30 years ago this was not the usual thinking for a man born in 1913. As for me, I knew I wanted to be independent, or that I would have to be, but I did not understand what that meant in practical terms.
I also did not know anything about graduate school; a career in academics never occurred to me, nor did I know much about specialized professions. Aptitude tests indicated I was suited for a counseling or teaching type of career, but for some reason I never considered the former and was too stubborn to pursue the latter. I did not want to do that which was expected of me.
Then, as now, there was nothing within my abilities that inspired me. I remember other kids who seemed bright and interested in the sciences who became salesmen and accountants. What about sales and accounting inspires them that the stars did not? Or are they more like me than I realize, in their case doing what they are expected to do but not what they could wish?
Most of us seem destined to live exactly like those before us did — doing jobs that have no real significance other than in the very short term, sustaining the way things are rather than creating what could be, enjoying the comforts and travel that money buys, frustrated by the senselessness of how the work world is structured and by the politics, and wishing for the courage to make a meaningful change — but ultimately resigned to what seems inevitable and unchangeable. Our dreams remain in our beds.
Each of us lives for himself, and often and naturally we take the easiest way that allows us to enjoy the most. Academics rarely make anyone rich, and research funding is at best uncertain. Working in the corporate world provides a reasonable assurance of reliable income, benefits, and retirement. With the myriad of egos, the pointless assignments and initiatives, the work that is rushed through only to be put on hold, the changing whims of decision makers, the back stabbing, and the general pettiness of office life day to day, it’s surprising to me how many people are willing to spend one-third of their adult lives taking orders in return for some personal comfort during the decreasing amount of personal time that actually remains. For most of us, the idealism of youth, the sense of a greater purpose seems to diminish in proportion to the hardening of our arteries.
Villagers might work together to make sure the lands are cleared and filled, the animals are fed and cared for, the laws protecting the individual and the community are upheld and enforced, and the enemy kept out. We are so many, so diverse — what common goals can we have? We assume — or hope — that the government and the military will defend us against terrorism and other horrors and the justice system against crime. Food, clothes, and toiletries appear almost magically on our shelves, produced far away and shipped almost invisibly. For product or service support, we call an anonymous soul in a country that is an ocean or two away. Many children do not realize that hamburger comes from a once-living animal. It is a pre-packaged world in which it is not our sense of community that connects us, but our sense of economy. We are as need-driven as the people of a village, but it is not our neighbor who fills our needs. It is the garment worker in China, the support staff in Bangladesh, the farmer in Honduras. Our only community may be that which we find at work. That is why it seems so important to find the right work, and to make it mean more than a small problem solved today, a paycheck, and a commute home. Someday we as a community may need to drop our desire for comfort and work together to solve larger problems — environmental degradation and change, overpopulation, weapons proliferation, genocide — all those things that have the capability of killing us all. That has not happened yet, and will not until there is a crisis that no one who is left can deny.
I know that many have richly rewarding professions — nurses and other health care providers, teachers, clergy people, that is, anyone who can see their effect on individuals and on the surrounding community, or those whose work will have an impact on the future. I know that others enjoy what they do because it satisfies a need to solve problems or to expand on knowledge. Then there are those who can brush off the bad things that happen and enjoy the simple things.
The rest of us, the stressed and unhappy and trapped, keep the world spinning on its well-worn, tired axis, ourselves feeling just as worn and tired. Knowing now what I didn’t know when I was 16, 21, or even 31, I would not have sought this life, but I do not know what I would or could have done differently.
Either I have missed my calling, or I was never qualified for it. And now I feel alone, isolated — no longer part of the community, realizing for the first time how I never really belonged to it or contributed to it. After all that I have done, learned, and tried, the most I can say for myself is that I exist. It doesn’t seem enough.