Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who We Already Are

    Yesterday, my 19 year old nephew, Evan, came down from Ohio for a short summer visit. I haven't seen him in a couple of years, and aside from the fact that I think he's grown several inches taller, what struck me most was his subtle transformation from a boy into a man. Like his cousins (my twins, Nick and Rory), Evan is a musician. He's played bass for his pop-rock band, The Fair Weathered, for several years now, and he absolutely lights up whenever the conversation shifts to music. I think it's probably genetic...coursing through our family's veins is the lifeblood of creativity. For some of us, it's an essential nutrient. My father ("Grandpa" to Nick, Rory, and Evan) was a gifted artist and brilliant pianist whose "day job" was being a physician. He exuded a love for life, a special reverence for nature and its mysteries, especially the human form, which was impossible to ignore. Everyone who knew my father thought of him first as an artist. I now know that my mother, who has never considered herself to be a creative person (a self-appraisal with which I happen to disagree), admits she often felt as if she were standing in Dad's shadow, but she assures me she was fine with that. She loved my father because of his uniqueness, not in spite of it. As siblings, the six of us have been blessed with Dad's ingenuity and joie de vivre in varying degrees of expression, tempered by a healthy dose of Mom's practicality and common sense. Although this seems like a "win-win" combination, balancing these opposing traits presents somewhat of a challenge. As an artist-physician myself, I've experienced this conundrum first hand.
     Evan just finished his first year of college at the University of Ohio. He's interested in audio production, a curriculum which is offered there, but because he didn't like Athens' restrictive college-town atmosphere, he is transferring to Ohio State in his hometown of Columbus. Unfortunately, OSU doesn't offer any coursework in sound engineering. Evan is deeply troubled by this dilemma; at the tender age of 19, he feels he is expected to know what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Like many people his age, he's unknowingly stepped into society's pressure-cooker of achievement and success. "Society measures success in money, which I don't agree with", he complains. "If I'm constantly hounded to be doing something productive for the next chapter of my life, I'm never 'in the moment', living this chapter of life." As someone who, at the age of 49, still doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up, I can definitely relate. Reconciling doing what we enjoy with that which produces financial independence seems like a futile exercise in mutual exclusion when we're as young as Evan is. It's as if we're invited to become anything in life, except who we already are.
     Aside from being preposterous, the idea that a person should have his or her existence mapped out by the age of 21 can actually do more harm than good. I can't think of a worse situation than being stuck working in a job I don't really care for, just because it came with a guarantee of financial success, the promise of prestige, or because it filled someone else's desires or expectations. I can't imagine a life based on denying myself happiness. As a teenager growing up in the late '70s, this quote from Hermann Hesse made a lasting impact on me: "I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?" My own career path has changed quite a few times over the last 30 years. I've worked as a mental health technician, a registered nurse, and now, as a practicing physician, but I've done these things because I wanted to, because they felt right, not out of a sense of obligation. Because my aspirations have been guided solely by inspiration, there's never been a trade-off between doing what I love and doing what I want. For me, prosperity is a direct reflection of my own happiness in life. I measure success in terms of personal fulfillment, not social status or how much money I have in the bank. The most miserable time in my life coincided with earning a huge salary. Although the mind-blowing paychecks were nice, I was "owned" by the hospital; most of my "free" time was spent catching up on sleep because I took so much overnight call. I was irritable all the time. I hated "existing", and began to feel as if I might be going crazy. I gave serious consideration to getting out of medicine altogether until it dawned on me that I could try working part-time without taking call, even if it meant quartering my income. I'm very happy in my new job and can attest to the fact that sometimes, less really is more.
     Evan, Nick, and Rory have all recently commented how they wish Grandpa was still alive so they could converse with him about being young men with unconventional dreams and interests in this oh-so-conventional world of ours. I'll bet he would have given them the same advice he gave me when I was sixteen: "You are who you choose to be." He never forgot that he was an artist at heart, a physician by trade, and neither have I. My hope is that these talented grandchildren of his also will never forget that they, too, are artists, musicians, and lovers of life, that who they already are is who they can choose to be.
Evan, in his element.
The Fair Weathered (Evan's band)

14 comments:

  1. My oldest won't be going to college for a couple of years but can already see she feels the pressure. Kids are being asked at such a young age to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Heck, they have to 'choose their sport' by the time they're 12!

    I grew up with the idea that money meant success. It also meant long hours and time away from family. Slowly, I realized there was another path to take. It has less gadgets and smaller TVs but more time to enjoy friends, family and life in general. Still, as the world gets more globalized and competitive, I understand the pressure people now feel to produce and move ahead, lest they be left behind. Sigh.

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    1. Somehow, I think it's harder being a kid today than it was 40 years ago. What I want my kids, and my nephews to understand, is that following their dreams of being musicians is not outside the realm of possibility, just because it's considered unconventional.

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  2. I think know adays, as a parent, I want my kids to go and do what they want to do as they get older and have our full support. I watch too many parents shove there kids into something and them not be happy.

    Great post Kris!

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    1. It's a balancing act for us parents between helping our kids explore possibilities and opportunities without treating them as extensions of ourselves.

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  3. beautifully put, kris! i wholeheartedly agree with everything you said!
    i was not lucky enough to have parents who understood life same way like yours. i was almost forced into art school, despite i excelled in every other field. i did enjoy art for some extent, however, being put into art when so young (early teen), i lost chance to develop others things. this made my later life tremendously difficult. i must say, half of my immigration life (about 7 or 8 years) i was under the stress (shadow) that i would never get my life back. however, after fighting myself until "death", i found by teaching art, a job that require minimum of my energy, making minimum wage, i'm finally able to have time to enjoy myself.
    yes, i think deciding what to do in all his/her life at age of 20s is too limited. i think we all should try every fields and see what type of persons we are. i believe someone are made for experts, someone are made for generalists (i am the latter). and if one cannot do what he/she love for making living, life can be miserable, no matter how much money they make.

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    1. YunYi, I am so glad that you've come to enjoy life, teaching art. Your students are very lucky! One thing I've thought about is how the average life span has increased...maybe college a little later in adulthood would make more sense for a certain segment of young people.

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  4. Loved the post Kris. I grew up under the menacing eyes of my mother who dictated a lot of what I should and should not do. I hated school so she decided to sign me up for evening classes - English and guitar lessons. I didn't go so she made it her mission to spy on me, so I got a good beating after being challenged. She then made me go to college so I spent 2 years of my life doing a course that I had no interest in. I always wandered why I hated things like reading books, education etc. I have only really got interesting in reading when I found out and starting blogging. Now all those years later I enjoy it.

    I say support the children in what they wish to do as some parents live out their own dreams through the child.

    Kris, you are one of the lucky ones who got to do a career you enjoy as there are twice as many people who work for the money to pay their bills, and society unfortunately does seem to gage success by the amount of money you earn or have. Your children I think will find what they want to do in time, especially with supportive parents as yourselves around them.

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    1. Rumpunchdrunk, Do you still play guitar? After medical school, it was years before I painted or picked up a book for pleasure. I do feel lucky that I wasn't pressured into a career choice. What makes me happy as a parent is seeing my sons happy, even if it's playing music shows for free, just because they love it. They are growing into their adult responsibilities, not being forced before they are ready...so far, so good!

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  5. I wrote a piece that touched on these issues about a week ago (not the one you read, Kris) and received an anonymous comment which just made me smile;

    "... Where most people talk about how much they dread being a parent of a teenager, I actually look forward to it. I can’t wait to see what kind of person he will become and what things make him feel truly alive. That said, I know he will stumble, I know he will make mistakes, rebel and at certain times possibly even want nothing to do with me. But in all honesty, though difficult for a parent to accept, his life does not belong to me...."

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    1. Ah, I love the last line in that comment...realizing that our children don't owe us anything is perhaps the single most important aspect of good parenting. I've loved all stages of my boys' life even more than the last. It's funny because I probably spend more time with them and their friends (all of whom are early 20's) than I do any other age group.

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  6. The part that I loved the most was how she couldn't wait to see what kind of person he would become. It's all about faith. Society needs to have more faith in our students/children. This post/conversation reminded me of a piece I started months ago but never finished (until today) - thanks!

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    1. You're welcome, and I agree with you 100% about faith.

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  7. Great post yet again! There definitely seems to be two major distinctions out there, those that sell out and those that honour themselves.

    I suppose there are a lot of pressures out there that give us potential cause to sell out, perhaps it means you'll be better off financially or maybe you'll be respected by an elitist society driven by materialistic consumerism.

    I don't know how many seller-outerers there are out there that are truly happy with their choices.

    Those that dance to their own tune, regardless of the meaningless societal pressures, do themselves the biggest favour they can.

    Imagining the hindsight with which I will look back on my choices one-day really helps me to make the right decisions.

    There's no time pressure for Evan. People change their careers/goals all the time, often much, much later in life and there's really no such thing as a wrong choice.

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    1. Thanks, Kev. If Evan is anything like his aunt, his career will change a few times, and he'll be happy! :-)

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