Sunday, January 11, 2009

For Love of Career

Before I entered 8th grade, I assumed that I would someday go into some kind of non-profit work. I was much more idealistic back then. I was going to devote my life to serving the poor, and possibly preaching a Christian Gospel (although some reservations about evangelism developed even before 8th grade). The particular form of service was irrelevant. I would labor in the fields or in an office and my life would have meaning and purpose. I would be consumed by work of cosmic significance. My descent (or ascent?) from idealism was gradual, and had to do with some mix of the following:
  • As my theology fell apart, the afterlife motive for doing the work of God diminished.
  • I observed that people are fundamentally selfish. With few exceptions, the religious and secular alike in America led very comfortable lives while giving only a token amount of their resources to charity. Many people followed the 10% rule, which may have been generous in some cases, but the very fact that they were following a rule rather than simply giving away "as much as possible" was evidence that even their giving was a selfish act, a purchase of spiritual or social insurance.
  • Identifying myself as a regular human, I came to view myself as fundamentally selfish.
  • It followed that all generousity was just an act.
  • Screw ethics. I'll just try to move on and enjoy life and try not to think too hard about it.
  • I couldn't stop thinking hard. Thinking is what I am.
  • Through lots of thinking I convinced myself that non-governmental charitable efforts are not-necessarily beneficial at all. The reasons for doubting the value of charity are many, but in the most cynical view, the world is already so overpopulated that nursing humanity along now will simply lead to a more cataclysmic mass-starvation when our delicate network of industrial farming and nuclear anti-proliferation treaties all falls apart.
So this was phase 1. As a selfish being, I didn't necessarily come across as selfish, because I was well aware of that being generous makes lots of sense as an investment to win friends and cooperation. So I was generous often with my friends, but not in an idealistic way. And I had lost faith in the non-profit sector to the extent that I stopped tithing.

Maybe now I'm in the middle of a phase 2, which begins with an observation that my concept of humans as fundamentally selfish is shaky, thanks to ambiguity in our concept of "self." Consider the following questions:
  • What am I? Surely I am more than a material body. I contain memories and plans, and I exist in a vast network of relationships. As a member of this network, my material body is in many ways irrelevant.
  • Where do I live? Inside my skull? In a particular spot in my brain?
  • What do I consist of? Molecules? Organs? Arms and legs? Neurons? Sure, all this and much more. How about this computer I'm typing on? It is an essential extension of my brain, just as much as my hand is an extension and part of who I am. Likewise, everything I interact with, including people, is part of who I am. When a close friend dies, part of me dies.
  • We are what we eat, but what we see, the tools we use, and the people we relate to.
  • Then what does it mean to be selfish? To the extent that we are all part of each other, me serving me is hardly a step removed from me serving you, and vice versa.
But the fact remains, I am selfish even in the traditional sense (which ignores the fact that other people are part of me). What has gone wrong? If other people are part of who I am, then there should be no need for this ridiculous intellectualization that I wallow in. If other people's needs are my needs, then my motive for helping other people should be implicit, self-evident, and unspoken. To some extent I already experience this implicit motive. Counselors might call it "empathy." There are moments, I am fairly certain, when I want to be there for friends, to offer support, wanting nothing in particular in return.

The problem is that my circle of empathy is not necessarily large. I don't care about the masses of people dying in other countries. I don't care about the poor people that I don't know personally. And I can't necessarily make much of a career just from caring about my friends. In this interconnected global economy, caring about a career seems to require caring about "the common good."

In summary, I'm going to go out on a shaky limb and casually propose the following diagnosis and treatment plan for lack of passion for any career. Diagnosis:
  • During crucial formative years, I came to see myself as fundamentally selfish.
  • This cynical view, even if partly true, needlessly became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • As I lost my idealism of caring for people on the other side of the world, I became a smaller person. I detached myself from broader humanity. I thought I was acknowledging reality, but I was creating reality.
  • I am left with only an extremely weak concern for the common good, and hence most careers feel empty.
  • I must jumpstart my relationship with broader humanity, so that my identity grows to include relationships with people I don't even know. Once those relationships are established, I will spontaneously care about the common good and a passion for a career will come out of that. A rebirth of sorts.
  • To jumpstart things, I must start volunteering locally to help people, and I should start donating money, even if it's a small amount, to some kind of charity, even if it's not necessarily a great charity.

Looking back at all of the above, I feel a bit skeptical, as usual, but maybe I'll give it a try.


Anonymous Happypappy said...

I recognize St. Francis, but who's the first guy? Skilling?

Adventurous thinking. I am printing it off to reread.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Israel Charity said...

Charities are created to help people find ways of dealing with situations that can’t be solved in normal ways. With a charity you have the ability of seeing how best to help the different situations get solved. You can support charities in your area by making sure that you provide the support that the charities need
For this reason when you are deciding to support charities you can choose how to help. There are lots of ways that you help the charities. The many different marathons, phone in marathons and fund raising events are good ways to support charities.

3:09 AM  
Blogger Mama JJ said...

Smart thinking, Little Bro.


6:10 PM  
Blogger AnyEdge said...

Fascinating introspection.

1:32 PM  

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