Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Old Dreams and Aspirations

The internet has been abuzz this week with news of the death of Professor Randy Paush, made famous this year for the Youtube video of his "Last Lecture." (Those of you who have been living under a rock can view the video here: Though I had seen snippets of his speech, I sat down today to watch the whole thing (which has been viewed over six million times on youtube alone), but I had to turn it off after about forty-five minutes because I was getting too depressed. And no, before you say it, the depression did not stem from his death, or even his attitude in the face of his death. Rather, I was depressed by his absolute insistence that we can all achieve our dreams if we just try hard enough.

The problem is not that all of his childhood dreams came true--I don't begrudge him his zero-G experiences or his chance to meet William Shatner. In fact, some part of me believes that the universe gave him those opportunities in a kind of karmic exchange for the fact that he did not get to see his children grow up, though I'm sure he would have preferred the latter if he had been given the choice. No, the problem is that I don't believe that hard work and perseverance can conquer all no matter what.

I used to believe it was true--I think everyone in my generation did at one point or another, if only because we were raised on the mantra "you can be anything you want to be." When I got to UCLA, all of my professors--especially the ones who taught Public Policy, my minor courses--drilled into our heads that we were "the best of the best, the cream of the crop" and had a responsibility to study as hard as possible so that we could go on to do great things for the world. I honestly believed that I would graduate from college, the angels would burst into song, and the nation as a whole would fall at my feet and thank me for finally arriving to solve all the world's problems ... well, okay, I guess that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I did think I would go on to do great things. I immediately found a job at a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica and prepared to tackle the reproductive health issues of the poor of LA.

The problem, however, was that I absolutely hated my job. I was making eleven dollars an hour; I had an hour's commute in the afternoon; I worked long shifts and weekends; and--what finally set off warning bells in my head--all of my co-workers were completely burnt out, angry husks of the idealists they must have once been. I quit after three months, even when I was offered a job in another department I had been eying. I found out the hard way that making a difference--what I had always self-righteously proclaimed I would do--is not as much fun as Americorps commercials would have you think.

Fast-forward twelve months, and I am now employed as a receptionist for a Fortune 500 Big Oil corporation. Is this my dream job? Hardly. (Although it does give me ample opportunity to work on my blog.) But I am faced with an unpleasant reality that forces me to make decisions I wouldn't otherwise make, and that reality is comprised mostly of thousands of dollars of college loans and monthly rent. I don't even make enough money to afford a car and its various costs. I'm not qualified to be doing anything else, because no one really wants to hire a literature major to do anything but answer phones all day.

So, now I am (a) not making a difference, (b) not doing what I love, and (c) not making any money. I had always supposed that whatever job I would eventually have would fall into at least one of those three categories, because I had always been told it would. My father's motto, "Do what you love and the money will come," doesn't really apply if what you love to do is read and write. Unfortunate, but true.

So, to return to my original point, listening to Professor Pausch wax on about how all of his childhood dreams came true and, oh, isn't that grand, kind of irritated me. Yes, I'm young, and I have no idea where my life will go from here, but it's hard to hear that someone else reached the pinnacle of their own expectations while I'm contemplating years of filing paperwork and kissing ass. I'm sure some people will be shocked by this and say, "Lindsay, the man was dying of pancreatic cancer. How can you be envious of him?" Well, I'm going to die some day, too, but society doesn't value my talents and interests enough for me to reasonably expect any, let alone all, of my dreams to come true. So sue me for being a teensy weensy bit bitter.

In fact, lots of people will never have those kinds of opportunities--women who sacrifice their dreams for their husbands' careers or their children, those who just don't have the skill sets necessary to secure good jobs, those who are racially or socio-economically challenged by modern-day America's biases. (Did I mention that a black man is much more likely to go to prison than to go to college? Yes, I'm sure if they just worked harder they would get their shining Disney moments, as well.) It's morally unethical to promise us a life of lemon drops and gum drops when it's really just going to be rain.

Let me pause here for a moment, however, to examine my own life. When I was a little girl, my dreams were ever-changing, but a few do stick out in my memory: I wanted to write a book, I wanted to be a park ranger, I wanted to go to summer camp, and, when I got a little older, I wanted to return to Colorado.

Well, while I've never had a book published, I did write a book that I finished when I was eighteen--a young adult novel entitled The Follies of a Beautiful Genius, and all of the people who mattered to me most read it. I now have my own copy with laminated covers and plastic binding. I don't remember ever wanting to be a famous author making oodles of money; I just wanted to finish writing a book. Technically, I've achieved that.

I've also never been a park ranger, but that's mostly because I discovered I had an aversion to guns. I did work in a state park for about a year, however, as a park aid, and I got to wear the Baghdad-brown khakis and the official-looking namebadge. I had park visitors calling me "ranger," and I got to speak as the voice of the park because I was often the only employee the visitors would see. Was I a park ranger? No, but I did find a job with all the perks, which were, namely, location location location. Ditto with the summer camp thing--I never went, but I did work as a camp counselor one summer in Pennsylvania for eight weeks.

Finally, I moved back to Colorado last October, which I often feel was one of the best decisions I ever made. And what prompted me to move back? Why, it was that shitty non-profit job that gave me the kick I needed to step back and re-evaluate my life.

So, do I have my dream job? No. Have I achieved many of my childhood dreams? Apparently yes. What this tells me, then, is not that if we work hard enough we can achieve whatever we want. No, what this tells me is that children have simple wishes and desires that can make them happy--it's only as we get older that we start to expect things like important, fulfilling, economically advantageous careers, and perfect relationships, and beautiful bodies. As children, we really just wanted to be happy; as adults, we want perfection and are disappointed by anything less.

My point, I guess, is that I don't really envy Professor Paush his achievements, and I'm not really all that bitter--but only because I have finally begun to acknowledge that, though I can't expect the world to give me lemon drops and gum drops, I can stand outside and enjoy the rain and be thankful for the opportunity to even see it, because there are 791,600 black men in prison who won't even get the chance. [1]

Work Cited:

[1] "More Black Men in Prison Than College, Study Finds."


why__not said...

I hear you. What i admired was his courage, THE CHOICES HE MADE. Faced with a cancer sentance most would not have given a lecture, or written a book.

I agree that effort alone may not achieve all of our dreams, but without it, none are possible.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

True, but I think we need to keep to be selective in which dreams we choose to pursue. I'm never going to be president of the United States, but I might be able to get a job in the mayor's office.

But I guess my real question is whether this is wising up and choosing contentment over disappointment, or whether it is just settling into a life of complacency.

Daniele said...

I didn't know you finished a book! I remember reading bits and pieces of different stories on band trips, but I didn't know you'd finished, Congratulations!

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Yep, I finished The Follies of a Beautiful Genius about a year after we graduated. I even sent it out to publishers and had some positive feedback, but it's pretty rough (since I was 16 when I wrote most of it) and it would need quite a bit of work to get published now.

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