Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do What You Gotta Do

In this season's The Big Bang Theory, Penny (finally) abandons her dream of becoming a famous Hollywood actress, gets a job as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, and can actually pay her bills and live comfortably.
She looks so responsible now!
I found this shift to be interesting. Usually, television will boost the belief that one should follow her dreams, and no matter how many times one fails, one will reach the stars (or something like that). 

Gordon Marino is an occupational counselor, who used to ask his students what they love to do when they seek his guidance. But now he is rethinking that method ("A Life Beyond 'Do What You Love'") and unleashed television memories in my mind's eye. 

Yes, there are people who rocketed to success while clinging to their calling. But there are as many individuals, if not more, who didn't, and elected to put aside the struggle by undertaking pragmatic, stable employment. Does that make them quitters? Does it mean their passionless work is meaningless?

The 1995 episode of The Simpsons "And Maggie Makes Three" flashes back to when there was only Bart and Lisa, and Homer achieves his dreams by leaving the power plant to work for less money in a bowling alley. Life is great. But when Marge becomes pregnant, the bowling alley salary is not enough, and Homer has to beg Mr. Burns for his job back. He's miserable. 

To add a final, devilish touch to his evil overlordness, Mr. Burns hangs up a sign that says, "Don't forget: you're here forever." Homer gives meaning to his misery by plastering every photo of Maggie around his cubicle, even over the sign, so now it reads, "Do it for her."
Yes, you may cry now.

But what if one isn't as selfless as Homer (that doesn't sound right), and one seeks only personal satisfaction. What if that someone can do so much for so many, but decides to reach for the petty-by-comparison dreams instead? 

An episode of House, M.D. called "The Greater Good" deals with just this: the patient is a prominent cancer researcher who opts to become a chef. After her illness she is still a chef—she chose happiness over greatness. 

Marino cites Kant, who operated on the belief (as philosophers did at that time) that one's abilities were gifts from Above, and so one should use their divinely ordained talents for the greater good. But today, God is no longer the first thought; "self-fulfillment" now reigns.
The faith that my likes and dislikes or our sense of meaning alone should decide what I do is part and parcel with the gospel of self-fulfillment. Philosophy has always been right to instruct that we can be as mistaken about our views on happiness as anything else. The same holds for the related notion of self-fulfillment.    
"Self-fulfillment" kinda sounds a lot like the yetzer hara, doesn't it? It's about, in essence, what I want to do, and to heck with anything else. Yeah, that always turns out well.

Marino's father toiled at a job he hated because he wanted to put his children through college and, in turn, have a better life. Some would call that meaning, Marino says, but his father would have seen it as simply doing what had to be done.
Dr. King taught that every life is marked by dimensions of length, breadth and height. Length refers to self-love, breadth to the community and care of others, and height to the transcendent, to something larger than oneself. Most would agree with Dr. King’s prescription that self-fulfillment requires being able to relate yourself to something higher than the self. Traditionally, that something “higher” was code for God, but whatever the transcendent is, it demands obedience and the willingness to submerge and remold our desires . . . Our desires should not be the ultimate arbiters of vocation. Sometimes we should do what we hate, or what most needs doing, and do it as best we can. 
"What has to be done" is different than "meaning"; "meaning" is a pleasant perspective, "what has to be done" is an obligatory directive, outside of our own selfish selves. If there is a way to combine what has to be done and what we like to do, that's nice. But in the end, we gotta do what we gotta do.


Sarah said...

This reminds me a lot of my parents, but in a slightly different way. My father, for example, loves his job, but works very long hours and has pretty much no down time outside of family time. He does not enjoy the grueling schedule but did it to put my siblings and me through Jewish school, seminary/yeshiva and college. None of his colleagues work so hard and they all have more upscale lifestyles to boot, but as he says, some things are more important than a relaxed life.

Thanks for the profound thoughts :)

FrumGeek said...

One of my favorite episodes of The Wonder Years is the one where Kevin goes with his father to work. While there, he asks his dad when he knew he wanted to be a manager at NORCOM. Jack explains that while "Being manager of product support services is a good job, It's not what I thought I'd be doing with my life." He goes on to tell Kevin about how he always wanted to be a captain of a ship. Kevin asks why didn't he do it, and Jack responds, "How come? Well, you know, one thing leads to another, went off to college,met your mom, next summer I got a job on a loading dock here at NORCOM, the rest is history." Then Jack says what is probably the most important line, at least to me, that's ever been said in a television show:

"You know, Kevin, you can't always do every silly thing you want to in life. You have to make your choices. You have to try and be happy with them."

Daniel Saunders said...

I think about this a lot. My chosen career of academic librarianship is, I think, socially useful and suited to my skills and personality. But my peers are rabbis, doctors, academics and political speech-writers (seriously) and sometimes I wonder if I could/should have been one of those things.

I agree with most of what you say, but I don't think meaning can be brushed aside so easily. Life without meaning is crippling and I doubt that anyone could do "what has to be done" for long without finding some kind of meaning in it, although they may not have expected that at the outset.

As a side-light on this, when I first started taking the teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe seriously, I was struck by what seemed like a contradiction. On the one hand, there was the predictable stress on serving G-d, but at the same time the Kotzker was preaching an extreme individualism unusual in Orthodox Judaism. Eventually I resolved the paradox: individualism in Western society means doing what I want, but the individualism the Kotzker was teaching means serving G-d in the unique way that only I can. This, I think, means that in the long run one should find meaning in "what needs to be done"; eventually the two should dovetail.

Daniel Saunders said...

This must be a good post if I'm still thinking about it! I just remembered this quote from To Heal a Fractured World by former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: "where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be".

Princess Lea said...

Sarah: "Some things are more important than a relaxed life" — I love that! That should be a quotable quote!

FG: I love television. That is a great line. How often does silly take over and we confuse that with a legitimate want?

DS: I wasn't brushing aside meaning. I was elevating it to a higher level of compulsion, rather than option.

As Rabbi Sacks said, when our own wants become elevated to the necessary, that's the highest level.