Goals, Going, Gone

The setting sun cast its last rays through the iron lattice of the window. Hakim’s gaze traveled beyond the grassy lawn to the Amalfi lemon tree that stood in the neighbor’s backyard. It was such a surprising sight. You do not expect to see Amalfi lemon trees in Moratuwa. The neighbor is a young man who wouldn’t know an Amalfi lemon from an avocado. And so it grows, the fruit ripening and falling all over my driveway. Hakim seems to be lost in thought. I waited. Just as I have seen the lemons grow, green at first becoming all bumpy and wrinkly and then changing to a pale golden glow, I see Hakim’s face going through stages of change. Finally I detect a hint of a revelationary glow in his eyes and then he speaks.

“I have spent my whole life in a tube, a long tube. My dad was an engineer and that is all I’ve ever heard growing up – ‘One day, be an engineer. Do maths. You have to pass well. Go to University.’ I spent my life becoming an engineer! And now my degree is over. I find out nobody gives a shit. I am waiting for a job like everyone else. I am not an engineer – I am just credentialed. Now what? My life as I knew it has come to an end. 24 years of becoming an engineer.” He laughs, choking. “I saw many things outside the tube – cricket, piano, photography…but I couldn’t reach out and touch them. ‘It was a waste of time’, my dad said. Piano and cricket will not get me a job. Ha ha..”

As dusk moved in, I switched on the light. It was harsh. A brutal invasion of reality into the nostalgic picture of what might have been. Was Hakim’s dad wrong to direct him into a path that would have surely helped Hakim to achieve financial stability and independence? Hakim, like many others, emerged from University believing the world is about to receive them with open arms. Believing that they are the generation that is empowered to change the system. And then that bubble was burst with a quick poisonous dart labeled ‘all is not well’ in the world. The world is at fault. The world is to blame.

But is it?

The science-fiction writer, Robert Heinlein said,

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts…Specialization is for insects.

This sounds like a lot, but the truth is that in our haste to protect the children from wasting time and a future disaster that happens only in our wise adult heads, we are pushing them into a narrow place where they feel like they are left with very few options. Reality is different – there are numerous non-engineering options for someone with an engineering degree (because these young people are recognized by smart employers as having the brains, patience, and discipline to make it through a tough regimen for 4 years.) But a child conditioned to be ‘somebody’ becomes miserable when they don’t get to be that particular somebody.

More often than not, it becomes the job of a counselor to ease them into a new way of thinking about the world – a world that is prosperous, progressive, and has room for all kinds of people. They discuss the importance of having a job and the thrill of taking personal responsibility for their lives. They explore the myths of narrow focus and the pros and cons of specialization. They make redundant the belief systems that are no more useful. They fly Superman-style into the future over the next 5, 10, or 15 years and see how best to equip themselves with skills that are necessary for adapting to any situation. They start to think differently and see their basic degree as the right tool to help them get on with the rest of their lives. A device that reminds them that hard work and consistency will pay off in the end no matter what job they do.

And so they work as management trainees, administrators, or banking executives. Some get lucky with a job in their field of study. But no matter where they go, they meet people who grew up outside the tube. Those who play the piano, read classics, cook, and study into the night while feeding their newborn babies. They see what life is like on the other side. Are these people miserable because they do not have a degree? Hardly. This is simply different. A life beyond the tube that ends in achieving goals and specialization. Yet they live, work, get married, build houses, go on holidays, have children, get divorced, and some in their middle age do achieve academic success. All the things that are common to all of us. Yes, it may be true that having a college degree will earn you more money in the long term. But ‘more money’ is not a factor in happiness. Having money is. Financial security is the factor. Not ‘more’.

The ability to be happy and fulfilled is within us. It should not be identified with our special talents or the goals we set for ourselves.

Yeats comes to mind.

Two verses from A prayer for my daughter:

A summary and analysis by litcharts.com:

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Analysis – The worst kind of hatred is the one that originates in the mind, so let my daughter think that opinions are something to be avoided. Have I not seen the most beautiful woman ever born out of nature’s rich abundance, due to her opinions, trade her natural blessings—and everything that quiet, sensitive people would consider good—for an old, angry man?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

Analysis – Thinking about all of this, all hate having been sent away, the soul becomes radically pure again and finally realizes that it is self-sufficient: it can make itself happy, peaceful, and frightened. The soul also learns that its own pure will is the will of God. My daughter—even if all people frown and the wind howls everywhere or every bellows breaks—can be happy nonetheless.

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