Throughout Commencement Season 2014, a flurry of articles descended upon us from the print and digital media with advice from celebrities, authors, politicians, religious figures, sports stars, and reporters.
One of the best such articles I read this year was David Brooks’s New York Times piece, "It’s Not About You." Particularly striking was Brooks's claim that “[t]oday’s grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they’ll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center.” This observation is not far off from David Foster Wallace's 2005 "This Is Water" address at Kenyon College:
This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let's get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.
DFW’s point that most of our life involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration isn’t so far from Brooks’ point that self is not the center of a life, but rather the tasks of this life. Because the fact is, many tasks of life are boring, routine, and minorly frustrating.
For example, making your bed. You wake up and every gosh-darned day it’s a mess again. Every. Single. One. Until you die. I’ve actually weighed the pros and cons of a sleeping bag.
Or if you have kids. As one of my teachers once noted, “children need things. And they have so many needs.” If you are a parent, guess what: Your kids want food. Every. Single. Day. Unless you are into Soylent (please don’t be into Soylent), that means doing things like grocery shopping and cooking, and probably having them not like at least one item because it was cut wrong or tastes wrong or is touching something else.
This is a fairly bleak depiction of the world. A life formed by tasks, many of which are utterly mundane while yet remaining utterly necessary. Hence why the common counter-argument is to “follow your passion.”
Now, I am all about being passionate. I am passionate about my writing, passionate about my faith, passionate about art and music, passionate about this killer piece of pizza I had last night. I find life to be much more exciting when I choose to be passionate about all sorts of things. However, even if some sort of Nietzschean will-to-power was the only requisite for actively engaging your passion, it’s probably safe to bet that some of these passions throughout my life will change, or that I simply will be unable to fulfil them. Or perhaps, horror of horrors, at 24 years old, I am still not entirely sure what my main all-consuming passion is.
Here’s the silly thing about all this “passion” talk: You can have a perfectly grand life without figuring out what yours is. In fact, “finding a passion” is a silly phrase, akin to “finding the one.” Do you walk about with a checklist? Google it? Read the words “stamp collecting” and realize that you have discovered the one real impetus your entire life needed? This isn’t to argue for a bleak and banal existence. In fact, I care deeply about many things. Sometimes so many that it can be disorienting, where I wonder, "What if I choose the wrong one to focus on and miss my passion?" It’s like Are You My Mother? but with Google searches and interior angst.
I think DFW points this out quite clearly—it is exceedingly easy to become mentally enslaved to your whims, desires, emotions, and changing experiences. The goal here is to find freedom to engage the community:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
By growing up and looking beyond ourselves, we face the opportunity to engage the people we encounter in the state-of-life we currently occupy. Being attentive to others, going out of your way to make someone’s life a bit better, even when yours is going horribly awry, may never cause your one true passion to reveal itself to you, fair enough. But these engagements, as we devote ourselves more and more to the particular problems that we can help with, form our “selves.” Not that we are all not-yet-ourselves, but unless you are a saint, you can still be perfected. By rolling up your sleeves and pitching in, you will learn where you are able to help.
If I am not the single most important person in the entire universe, then it’s true that my life isn’t entirely “about me.” It’s about the gifts I have, the ways I can help even if not by means of what I perceive as my greatest gift, and the people whom I am able to help. Saint John Paul II was an exceptionally good actor, from all accounts. But circumstances, like the Nazi occupation of Poland, and Divine Providence, moved him in a different direction. He continued to appreciate the arts, but if his “one true passion” had ever been theater, it was not where life took him. He chose to join the priesthood, and ultimately was chosen to lead the Catholic Church. Which is one of the most roll-up-your-sleeves-and-pitch-in roles with which a person can find himself tasked.
No one is saying life must be drudgery. Life is quite bright and exceptionally shiny. But it tends to look less so when we close our eyes and attempt to impose the world of our imaginations on the exterior. The better way is to realize that there is a world out there that immediately surrounds you—your family, friends, community, country, office, class. There is something you can do to help at least one person in one of those groups.
So don’t worry about whether your life will never be fulfilled because you failed to run off and live with grizzly bears or backpack through Asia, although I’m sure both are fun in their own way, and perhaps that is your immediate situation. But if it isn’t, if you are stuck in suburban nowhere and feeling like your passion may never show up, maybe the problem isn’t your passion. Maybe you need to show up and help where you can. Because the weirdest thing happens: When you make it not about you, you tend to find yourself caring about things. Which, some may argue, is the first step toward finding yourself passionate.