Living Lives That Are Not Our Own
As undergraduates we are often asked many of the same questions throughout our time in college. Questions that relate to what we want to do with our lives, how we want to make money and who we want to be are almost always swirling around our heads during our academic studies. Though the answers to these questions vary for each of us, there is one commonality that links many of our answers together: the answers are not always our own.
As products of specific households and members of a broader society, we grow up hearing about what is right, what is wrong, what is proper and what should be avoided. Values become ingrained in us from an early age and grow into expectations as to what our futures should hold. We are told what it means to get good jobs, be good people and live good lives. While information like this is vital in guiding us, considering our parents have lived longer and seen more of the world than we have, what often comes from it is a yoke of expectations that we are almost required to uphold. Whether consciously or subconsciously, this yoke becomes something that we carry with us throughout our lives as we discover who we are. Whether these expectations fall in line with what we personally believe or not isn’t even a factor, because from an early age they become an essential part of how we see ourselves.
As the ones who have cared for us from birth, our parents and the advice they share are important to us. Beginning in our earliest years, we turn to them for guidance and invariably trust their words. While in many cases this trust sees us adopt healthy values, as our parents genuinely want us to succeed in life, it can also see us spend years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing dreams that are not our own. Speaking with individuals in undergraduate programs and even those in graduate medical and law schools, I often hear people say that a major factor in their pursuit of a certain career path are the wishes of involved parents. When offering advice it makes sense that parents want to see their kids grow into well-respected and well-paid professionals. Having a son who is a lawyer or doctor is a dream of many parents, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community. These aren’t bad dreams, since as a society we look up to these people as being truly successful in life. The question for these individuals, though, is whose dreams are they chasing? Are they –– and are we –– truly seeking our own dreams, or are we grasping at the dreams of others?
Beyond the expectations of occupation within the Jewish world, many times religious expectations are placed on us as well. Whether going to shul three times a day, keeping Shabbos or even marrying a fellow Jew, we can often find ourselves governed by values from the outside, values that are not necessarily our own. If our lifestyles are ones where we eat kosher, then we should eat kosher. Our eating, though, should be because we value kashrut, because we are fearful of violating G-D's word, or any other host of reasons. It should not instead stem, I believe, from forced expectations. While it may appear to accomplish the same goal now, that of driving by the McDonald's rather than stopping in for a Big Mac, it leaves a person in a place where he or she is not acting of his or her own accord. When our own values don't determine our actions, then our actions lose value to us. When we live hollow lives, we can no longer enjoy them, and we become more likely to falter in our actions as well.
Our parents love us and they want to see us become the best version of ourselves. We all know that, and this is not a call to ignore them. Forcing us to do anything is never their intention, as they have cared for us and will always continue to care for us. Their lessons enable us to learn ethics and gain knowledge without having to spend the years and experience the hardships that would otherwise be necessary to reach that understanding by ourselves. Parents and role models want us to achieve what they think is best for us, and we desire to live up to those expectations because we trust them to lead us down the right path. We take their word as truth, and although, of course, in 99% of cases we really should, we must also remember that their advice is their word and not ours. As individuals, we must remember that we are the ones who are in the midst of the journey of academia and life. It is we who are growing up and becoming adults, and hopefully, productive members of society. We must keep in mind that we are living our own lives and that only we can truly know ourselves. While we should trust the values and expectations of our parents, we cannot rely solely on them to determine our paths in life, as only we can discover what we truly want and who we are to become.
Photo Caption: Parents are deeply involved in the lives of their children
Photo Credit: Unsplash