With graduation time here again, there's something well worth our reflection. In ancient Rome, only the upper classes had much choice as to occupation. And Cicero pointed out that the age at which such fortunate youth were supposed to choose their path in life was precisely a time when they were least prepared to understand the range of their options and the consequences of their choices. Interestingly, the same truth holds today.
When my friends were seeking to pick their major at UNC, they would most often ask themselves, "What do I want to do for the rest of my life?" And many froze in fear that they'd choose wrongly. My father taught me that, by contrast, and in a Ciceronian mode, "You never have to ask what you want to do for the rest of your life, only what you want to do next. The rest of your life will take care of itself, as a result of these much smaller choices."
In my novel, The Oasis Within, young Walid Shabeezar has just turned thirteen. And as he crosses the desert with his uncle and a group of friends, he discovers something about his family and himself that he had never imagined. The discovery then confronts him with an unanticipated choice. There are certain expectations for him. Will he agree to accept them, or not?
A famous literary agent who read the first draft of the book worried to me about Walid. She said, "But he doesn't really have a choice. He does what he's expected to do. And that just seems unfair." But is it unfair at all?
For most of history, young men and women grew up to do the exact work they had seen their parents do. Hunters became hunters, farmers became farmers, and homemakers engaged in home economics. A blacksmith's son would also begin to shoe horses. A shopkeeper's child would learn that trade, as well. But in more recent decades in the developed world, there has come to be an increasing range of options open to us all. And that's become a problem. Some well-known psychological experiments have shown that if you give people too many choices, our ability to choose at all breaks down. Faced with a display of 100 different jellies in their grocery store, people simply walk away. Confronted by 12, they may make a choice.
Mondrian once said that for a painter contemplating a blank canvas, the first brush stroke is always the hardest, because it eliminates countless other possibilities.
If a young man follows his father's work, or a young woman her mother's, or there is a continuity crossing the gender divide, yet taking family activity into the next generation, has such a person abdicated choice? In my view, not necessarily at all.
Let's consider for a moment the most extreme case. A couple wants to pass on to their children a business they've created. And all but one of the siblings prefer instead to do other things. Will the youngest then face a level of pressure that eliminates any real freedom of choice? Certainly not. Of course, the young person may opt to do something different, however challenging that may be. But suppose, by contrast, that this young adult child does agree to take on the family business and tradition. There are clearly two ways to do "what's expected of you." One way is to defer unwillingly, give in, and allow the choice to be made for you. This is of course a path to resentment and diminishment. But there is another way. And that is to freely embrace what's set before you, and take it up as your own chosen path. In this modality, you take emotional and existential ownership of what's been offered you, and you make it your own. It's a path of career choice that nowadays is rare, but there's nothing inappropriate or inauthentic about it when it's done in full knowledge of options, and with courage as well as compassion.
In like manner, many of us feel a sense of mission in what we're doing. I've felt that since one day in college, when, on a walkway near the math building at UNC, I experienced a sense of calling that was not yet fully specific, but almost an alert that I had a special mission upcoming, one that was soon to be assigned to me. This experience gave me great hope and confidence and enthusiasm about the future. And I immediately embraced whatever this specific mission would be, wholeheartedly and with great gratitude.
Did I not have a choice? Certainly, I did. But I responded ultimately to something that felt given to me, and yet I took my own ownership of the adventure to come, and have so ever since. There's a false view of freedom that we have to make up everything ourselves from scratch in order to preserve the entirety of our integrity. But there's another perspective in accordance with which authenticity means respecting who you most deeply are and what you're most deeply given to do, and then working with that to the utmost of your ability.
I hope for our current graduates that they can come to make such choices well, and in the way that will lead to a deep sense of gratification and fulfillment for them, as well as a greater good for us all.