Citizens of Athens, aren’t you ashamed to care so much about making all the money you can and advancing your reputation and prestige, while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your souls you have no thought or care?
Some months ago I loaned the film Finding Joe to a friend; the main thrust of her feedback about the movie was that she felt it ignored – or at best, glossed over – the reality that there are many who simply cannot follow their bliss because they are poor, disabled, female, under the control of parents who have already made their life decisions for them, and so on. Clearly, Miya Tokumitsu and Colin Stokes agree, as I am sure do many others.
I do not.
A child born in a slum, who as a primary school student had to work part-time in order to buy school supplies and have pocket money, who began working in his father’s shop at the age of twelve, whose family was evicted four times from their home grows up to become the mayor of his home town, and then the governor of the metropolis of Jakarta. Joko Widodo is now the president-elect of Indonesia.
In 1990 a young English woman moved to Portugal to teach English as a second language. While in that country she met a Portuguese man whom she married in 1992; in 1993 they gave birth to a daughter but separated in November of the same year. The young woman returned to Britain with her daughter, and, clinically depressed, jobless, on welfare, and with a child to rear, she contemplated suicide. Despite her trials, she doggedly persisted in completing a project she had started years earlier, and in 1995 J.K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published.
In 1973 an athletic Canadian teenager was thrown from the back of a pickup truck, suffering a spinal cord injury that left him paraplegic. This young man became the first disabled person to graduate in Physical Education from the University of British Columbia; he went on to win three gold medals, two silver medals, and one bronze medal in the 1980 and 1984 Summer Paralympic Games, as well as winning 19 international wheelchair marathons. In 1985, inspired by another Canadian disabled athlete, Terry Fox, he embarked on the Man in Motion world tour, circling the globe in his wheelchair and raising $26 million for spinal cord research. The eponymous Rick Hansen foundation has since raised more than $200 million for spinal-cord-injury-related programs.
Temporarily paralyzed at birth and considered by doctors unlikely to live, this son of Kentucky tobacco sharecroppers managed to survive but grew up in poverty. In the seventh grade he realized that he was different from other boys his age and instinctively knew that the difference was one he should not talk about; the youngster was sexually attracted to other boys. As a result of his religious upbringing, he was aware that the bible called this attraction an abomination. Nevertheless, he attended seminary and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1975. On June 7, 2003, Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, the first priest in an openly gay relationship to be consecrated bishop in a major Christian denomination.
These examples show that it is possible to overcome hardship, obstacles, opposition, and stigma in order to find and follow one’s bliss. They also show that a person does not have to be a member of an elite group in order to do what he or she loves – or is called – to do. Gene Robinson is not straight; Rick Hansen is not able-bodied; J.K. Rowling is not male; and Joko Widodo is not white.
The problem for many of us is not so much that we are marginalized in some way – although marginalization is indeed a challenge – but that we are simply not aware that we can choose as our life’s work that which we are passionate about. To boil the issue down to an even more basic level, we often do not even know what we are passionate about. Our lack of awareness as to who we really are is the result of society – our parents, our peers, our teachers, our governments, our corporations, and the media – urging us, consciously or unconsciously, to be other than who we are.
Our notion of success is the culprit here. In North America, and in an increasing number of societies throughout the world, success means achieving both financial stability (earning a high salary, owning a home, being able to save for a comfortable retirement) and high social status (being a member of a profession or an executive in business, owning a home in a prestigious neighbourhood, achieving a certain measure of notoriety). Such success may come as the result of outstanding academic achievement, of being “well connected,” or of individual intelligence or grit, or a combination of these factors.
Of course, there are those who are born to be in business, to be doctors, to be clever lawyers, and these people derive deep satisfaction from their vocations. But many of those who ignore their calling and follow the path of money or security or prestige find themselves in crisis at the age of fifty, wondering why they feel so empty and lost.
The Jungian psychotherapist and writer James Hollis was at one time a college professor. In his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up, he states, “When I was a college professor, I heard student after student say, ‘I wanted to study X, but Mom and Dad said they would only help if I was a business major’. When I suggested that they could find a way to pay for their own education, they resisted, not because they were lazy, but because they feared the loss of parental approval. I always wondered if such parents really thought they were helping their children by enlisting them in their own security needs, and by ensuring that the children they professed to love would be miserable in their work lives.”
These young people have been encouraged by external authority to pursue a career, negating or suppressing the inner authority of the soul, which directs them to pursue their vocation, to follow their bliss. How many other teachers have heard the same sad stories from their students? As Hollis notes, “By midlife… many find that their work drains rather than energizes them. They suffer vague discomfort, find themselves bored, wistful, longing for something else. The sham we perpetuate when we insist on our young people preparing for a lifelong career means that we wish them to arrive at midlife about as unhappy with their lives as their parents.”
It is perhaps time for our education system to more closely examine the “soul needs” rather than focusing entirely on the need for economic security of our young people. Economic security, especially in our current social, political, and financial climate, has after all become a kind of oxymoron; even a highly trained lawyer cannot be guaranteed a job that will lead to a new car, a house in the suburbs, and an Armani suit or two.
It is only by listening to the call of the soul that a fully realized life can be achieved. Just ask Oprah.
“J.K. Rowling 2010,” by Daniel Ogren. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)