“As students head to school this year, they should consider this: You don’t have to change the world or find your one true purpose to lead a meaningful like. A good life is a life of goodness — and that’s something anyone can aspire to, no matter their dreams or circumstances.” Emily Esfahani Smith from her recent column in the New York Times You’ll Never Be Famous — And That’s O.K.
I think there is much to learn from Emily Esfahani Smith’s work. I have read her work and watched her on youtube discuss what constitutes a meaningful life. Her thesis is always the same, meaning can be found, is usually found, in small acts and large efforts to connect to a larger purpose. Smith famously chronicles the woman who works in the Detroit Zoo caring for animals, usually cleaning their cages, feeding them, doing mundane and thankless work, all to give support to another creature. On the face of it this kind of work is hard, thankless and anonymous but Smith argues that work that connects us to our purpose and the world’s needs is meaningful work.
I was born in 1963 and for most of my life and the generations who have come after me the expectations of life have changed dramatically since the time of my parents and grandparents. It is true that many young men joined the military during two World Wars to seek adventure. But even then the adventure itself was never expected to bring individual celebrity or fame. The reality for those generations was undergirded by modernity, the idea that one set of truths, one set of expectations of the good, one set of behaviours for citizens, were set in stone. No one could ever say then they did not know what was expected. The goals for those generations were to have a healthy and happy life, all within the clear expectations of a civil society.
Those raised in the 1960’s and thereafter came to a new understanding, that our individual desires and concerns were at least as important as those of the larger society. On so many levels this corrective was a welcome shift. Women could aspire to more than being a secretary, nurse or teacher. Persons of colour were not “other”, they were “us”, and there was always more than one way to do or say things. I often say this but it should be repeated, my 16 year old Chinese daughter would never have the opportunities in the past that she enjoys today. A large part of that shift in thinking was attributed to the idea that the old paradigm of modernity is no longer accepted as uniformly true.
But when those old conventions cracked the reality we had carefully constructed as certain shattered. And as something new was formed it had at its centre the “I”. And as the “self” evolved the space given to our needs and wants grew as well. We would look around and see possibilities and ask ourselves, “why not me?” Time after time I hear school principals tell graduates they could do anything, be anything, that s/he was gazing out at future inventors, multi-millionaires, doctors who would cure cancer. It gave my generation and those who came later a very inflated notion of what we could be. It also failed to speak to the hunger of what might make us happy.
Smith has uncovered some of that unspoken hunger and given voice to the need to pass over fame and fortune and instead find joy in smaller acts that connect to larger truths. For this I am grateful.