written by Anthea Syrokou
[Publisher’s Note: In my recent, David Boles: Human Meme, podcast entitled — “We Are Our Works” — loyal listener Anthea Syrokou wrote a smart, and thoughtful, response to that piece of work and, with her permission, we share her fine mind…
After listening to your recent “We Are Our Works”, podcast episode, I found myself agreeing to most of what you were saying. You touched on so many things that contribute to people living a life that is not really their own. I agree that we are a lot of things, we are complex as humans, and questions that only invite one answer, can be the reason people grow up thinking that they must, should, ought, have to be, a certain way.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I completely agree that as you say, there is no room for more than one answer when asking a child this question. That’s the question, however, many of us as children have been asked by adults and teachers, who looked at us eagerly, expecting that we would have an answer. Of course, as children, we don’t want to disappoint and any attention from adults is sought, so we make something up or say the first thing that comes to our mind.
By asking such a question, early on in a child’s life, I agree, that we are actually teaching children that they “should” have an answer and the answer is supposed to be based on an occupation. Of course, as children, our imagination can run wild, and we may have said that we want to be a superhero, or some made up character, but the look on the adult’s face would quickly put a halt to such creative, non-restrictive answers, because a child craves approval and reinforcement from an adult.
This is the scenario that came to my mind when listening to your latest Human Meme episode. A restrictive question which causes only a restrictive answer, with no room for growth or analysis. Answers such as: I’d like to be happy, I’d like to do many things, I don’t know, are not received favourably or well because these answers do not meet the expectations of the adult who has also formed their own beliefs from the expectations of society. The connection between an identity and work, is thus, formed early on with this question. At least, that’s how it was during my childhood.
So we grow up with that false belief – we need to become something and that ‘something’ is the role that we play in an occupation. The question becomes entrenched in our minds even during our formative years, and the pressure to still have an answer, at times, may cause us to make up an answer that we even convince ourselves is true – just like we did as small children, because we learn from early on in our lives that we ‘should’ have an answer.
I think that question, first of all, is a misconception because we don’t just “become” something. This immediately sets limits and debilitates growth as an individual. By just “becoming” something, it suggests a finality – end of searching and growing. We would remain stagnant, and live unfulfilled lives that are based on roles we play on a daily basis, and as children, by answering it, we learn that it is based on what we want to be employed in.
Such a question does not take into account our desires, our yearning, our need for self-actualisation – to reach our potential as individuals on a holistic level, outside of paid work. Also, once we do “become” something, whether it is through work or any other role – then what? Do we stop growing and evolving?
Basing one’s whole identity on their occupation can be detrimental to their mental health. It is something that can be lost, and once that happens, the individual can also feel lost, and that’s where anxiety and depression can occur. This is especially true when we don’t have any other interest or passion outside of work or when one does not know what gives him or her meaning in life. Many people who retire feel like this – they may be financially secure, but at an older age, they still don’t know what makes them the person they are – so many feel lost, and depressed. Many return to work.
Of course, there are many jobs that people feel passionate about and may be considered a calling. I believe that even with such occupations, where passion for the job is so intense, and cannot be separated from the person’s essence – their soul, – it can also be too restrictive because they need to have balance – a holistic approach to life.
Limiting our identities to one thing can be overbearing. A well-balanced, holistic approach is always healthier where mind, body, and soul are all considered, and constant, mindful analysis regarding what gives us beauty – meaning in life. I think we need to give ourselves permission to keep re-evaluating what has meaning to us as individuals – our answer/ answers can change as we change.
This brings me to the question you ask your students to ask their parents, which I thought was very creative and can encourage insight on a deep level: “What were their dreams?” I think that many parents do get lost in the dreams of their children. They may feel that it is selfish to try and fulfill their dreams because once again, they have been asked all their lives what they want to be, and it was always based on an occupation.
I believe, as parents, they may also feel that they are selfish to pursue their own dreams because they may think the new parent role, which for many, is a form of unpaid full-time work, means they need to mainly provide for their children and make sure they too succeed at school so they too can earn a good living.
The irony is that a vicious cycle is formed because parents who sacrifice their dreams, are teaching their children to sacrifice their dreams also. We, as parents are role models, and children learn from us. By following our dreams, searching for answers and teaching them that we are worthy of finding happiness and meaning in our life, we are teaching them the most valuable lesson in life; that they too are important and that they too should follow their own dreams.
Of course, all families are different, and many encourage self-expression and looking beyond an occupation to find meaning in life. They look to core values, and take a holistic approach. Different cultures also place value on different things. A lot of the European cultures focus on family, socialising, food, siestas, romance, love, and passion, as being more important in life than work. Work is usually at the lower end in the hierarchy of having a rich, abundant life.
You mention connecting with someone on a deep level – finding what it means to be that person. I think your questions very cleverly facilitate growth and insight. There is nothing more enriching in life than to connect with a fellow human being on a deep level, regardless of their occupation.
I have realised in different situations, such as a dinner party, that when people talk about their work, barriers go up and different small groups are formed, where work becomes the main topic. I was once seated next to a group of teachers, and I suddenly felt that I was at a faculty meeting – except, I’m not a teacher – and I felt more like an ignored student. The minute guests cease to talk about work, the barriers go down, and many little groups become one big inclusive group – where conversation becomes intense, passionate – and human connection at a deeper level is formed.
As I scan the table, I realise that each person has something unique and valuable to impart, and that is because their identities for that hour or so, are not based on their employment or unemployment, or even their role as a parent. We, as individuals do a disservice to ourselves when we judge or choose to avoid connecting with someone because they don’t have the same occupation as us.
I believe we can learn from many different people, whether they are a builder, or a doctor. Even my children teach me something about myself everyday. We then realise, we are all people who are trying to connect on a human level, and to make sense of a world that at times is nonsensical.
Anyway, I always feel compelled to explore such questions as you have raised in your recent podcast episode. I think these questions are crucial to finding answers that foster living a content life, and can lead to more self-awareness into what makes each of us an individual. I feel very passionate about finding meaning in life beyond our work and have even based my first fiction novel on exploring such questions.
It is healthy for us to know who we are as individuals, even if we do not have our materialistic possessions such as luxury cars or designer bags, that may define us, or if we do not have a role to hide behind – such as a job or even our role as a parent.
Once again, an outstanding episode of Human Meme. I was left thinking to the point that I had to write down my thoughts. It is very commendable that you try to bring out our humanity, especially in a world that forgets to look inward and places limitations on individuality, and instead, focuses on identities based on something that may easily be lost.
I just had to voice my thoughts, as a human being, who has studied and worked in different fields, who is pursing the dream of being a writer, who happens to also be a wife and a mother, and tries to find meaning in different aspects of life – because everything is interconnected.
Just thought I’d let you know – I can’t keep my thoughts caged inside – they need an outlet, so I have set them free and sent them to you – in NYC! You don’t need to do anything with it – just voicing my thoughts – from one human to another – as you do in your podcast!