The Origins of Our Aspirations

What are the origins of our aspirations? Do we make our own decisions? Are we truly self-made? Or are our thoughts open territory for others to invade?. Are we impenetrable stones or pliable hunks of clay, ready to be smashed into shape each passing day? And in all of this, is there a price to pay?

I remember asking this one girl what was her favorite thing she did in school that day, when she furrowed her eyebrows and stared intensely at the ground for a few moments. I was just about to start offering a list of fun suggestions, when she interrupted my-

“We did a lot of really fun things today, but I think my favorite was duck, duck goose!”

“Yeah? I love that game,” I answered, amused by her thoughtful pause and candor.

“Yeah! Except I can never catch anyone!” she squealed, crossing her arms and pouting a little, evidently frustrated with the relative speed and agility of her companions.

“Aww, I’m sorry.But hey, don’t worry about it. You’ll catch them all one day.” I patted her on the shoulder reassuringly.

She nodded vigorously before going quiet for a little while. Seizing the opportunity to ask one of my favorite questions, I ventured, “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

I always like asking children this question because it’s one that even a lot young adults struggle to answer. It also tells you a lot about their values, perceptions, and aspirations for future stability and happiness. As a child myself, I had gone from wanting to be a lamp  (the light of people’s lives), to an artist, to a scientist, to a hippopotamus, to finally a doctor. In those simple words is an inquiry along the lines of: When you’ve obtained the intellectual and emotional maturity to contribute to society in some way, how would you go about doing it?

My little companion answered instantly, “A cardiac surgeon.”

Wait what? This girl couldn’t have been more than seven-years-old, and she wanted to be a cardiac surgeon.  A cardiac surgeon. 

“Really?”

“Uh huh,” she answered absent-mindedly as she watched an ant scuttle across the top of her shoe.

“A cardiac surgeon?” I repeated stupidly, striving to make sense of her oddly specific response. I would’ve been impressed had this girl just said doctor. But no, this girl took it one step above and beyond. This girl didn’t just want to be any kind of doctor. She wanted to be a cardiac surgeon.

“Why?”

“Because  cardiac surgeons make a lot of money,” she answered coyly.

I inwardly groaned.

Oh god. Out of all of the answers she could’ve given me, this was definitely the worst.

“Anything else?” I inquired further, giving her the opportunity to redeem herself.

“Hmm, well I could also help a lot of people, since my parents say a lot of people have heart problems when they’re older.”

Ah ha! So it was the parents!

“What else have your parents told you about being doctor?”

She smiled broadly before saying, “That I’d get a fancy white coat, and a stethoscope, and that all of my patients would love me!”

“Well I mean, if you just want people to love and respect you, don’t you think that all students love their teachers? You don’t have to be a cardiac surgeon to get people to like you a lot.” I asked, gently challenging her ideas, seeking to broaden her perspective by just the slightest margin.

“Yeah, but being a doctor is different! You get to save people!” she insisted.

But couldn’t you argue that educators were equally essential? That they saved countless individuals from lives of hateful ignorance on a daily basis?

I wanted to question her further, asking her things like, “Couldn’t you also make  a lot of money as a lawyer or an architect?” or “Did all compensation have to be financial in nature?”

But, hey, this girl was only seven, so I decided to cut her some slack.

After that, we dropped the topic of careers and got into an intense game of I Spy, and all was well on that bright sunny day. But I found our previous conversation hard to shake.

It was incredible how much of an impact people could have on our own thoughts and actions. With just a few wishful words, her parents had managed to direct this little girl’s hopes, aspirations, and dreams into becoming a professional in the medical field, an indubitably noble  goal. But it still made me uncomfortable.

If we are constantly influenced by those around us, how can we ever distinguish our own dreams from those of our friends or family? In spite of their well-intentioned advice, wouldn’t a few words of encouragement suffice?

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The Neutrality of Normalcy

Colored by perception, emotion, and distortion, the concept of normalcy is a very interesting one. Some despise it with a passion, claiming that the idea is far too bland and predictable. Others, on the other hand, embrace normalcy in its unifying commonality. Like all other convoluted subjects, let us begin by defining it, so that it is no longer in any uncertain terms. “Normal” means conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

Far too often, I see movies, television shows, music, and literature decrying the ills of normalcy. As Lady Gaga proudly claimed in her song, “Bad Kids”, “I’m a twit, degenerate young rebel and I’m proud of it.” As this line demonstrates, many herald and respect deviation from the norm. They view these distinct individuals as asserting their independence, creativity, and nonchalance of inane societal stipulations. And while I admire rebels’ personalities as much as anyone else, I think we tend to judge individuals who identify themselves as normal a little too harshly.

Oh, Frank is a successful car salesman with a wife, two kids, and a dog named Lucy? He’s so normal, one might think with a judgmental roll of the eyes. Looking at this example, I particularly dislike this mode of thought. Perhaps Frank is happy with his modest, successful, and fairly normal lifestyle. Why must we look down upon him because he doesn’t choose to live differently?

It’s gotten to the point where normal individuals struggle to identify themselves as being different or “random”. This was quite the problem for me in my time in middle school, otherwise known as the frightening, formative years when we were desperately trying to distinguish ourselves from the rest of our peers.

I would be having a perfectly decent conversation with one of my classmates, when they would arbitrarily interject some word or phrase into the discussion.

Me (looking out the window): It looks like it’s going to rain.

Anonymous companion: Yeah, those clouds don’t look to good.

Me: I agree. And I think I just heard some thun-

Anonymous companion: Pineapples!

Me: What?

Anonymous companion: Oh, I’m sorry! I’m just so random! My mom just says I’m unique that way. I dunno what came over me.

In retrospect, I pity my anonymous companion for feeling the need to deviate from societal norms simply for appreciation and respect. Why must we ever change who we are and what we do unless it infringes on the rights, personal safety, or happiness of others?

Why does it matter that I enjoy apple pie just as many others do? Why does it matter that I strive for a well-paying career in order to obtain financial stability in the future? Just because many others have chosen the same path that I have doesn’t reduce its personal value.

In essence, we can continue to celebrate rebellion and the creative deviation from the norm. After all, how else are we to expand our intellectual horizons? However, let us not harshly judge normalcy, for it is the common glue that binds us all together.  Why can’t we appreciate the neutrality of normalcy?

A Lot to Take

As the immensely emotional creatures that humans are, we experience a tidal wave’s worth of emotions on a daily basis (I say “we” because I’m assuming you are human as well). On some blissful days, we’re exuberant, confident, and productive, like the placid waters of the ocean on a bright, summer day. Yet, on others we are just the opposite. Times when we are raging, despairing, and roaring, like the wild, frothing ocean waters during the icy winter months. Now if we, as the well-balanced and reasonable people that we are, are so emotionally unstable, just imagine how it is for a person who’s slowly losing their ability to control their thoughts or process reality. Just imagine how it is for a person with dementia.

Without my experiences in the assisted living center, I would have absolutely no authority to speak of the subject. Yes, perhaps I could simply Google the symptoms of dementia and give you the general idea.But because of my proximity with one very special resident, Miss Bertha, I have been made aware of the tragic and violent mood swings that people with dementia suffer from.

Most of the residents in the dementia unit are in a blissful and oblivious state of equilibrium, requiring assistance but generally cheerful. They engage in simple conversation with each other. They’re happy when they see someone wants to help them. Sure, they have their ups and downs, but they pass quickly.

Miss Bertha is different. Having been a school teacher for twenty years, she’s always been in a position of power. From having students clean the blackboard, to lecturing about European history, to having three children, Miss Bertha has always had a tremendous degree of control over her life and those of others. It is her immensely independent character that makes her dementia so difficult for her to handle. She can’t fathom the fact that as an aging individual, she needs to rely on others. From her eyes, Miss Bertha is still the same hardworking, resilient woman she was thirty years ago.

When the caregivers and I see that Miss Bertha has tired herself from walking about the facility and encourage her to sit down, she snaps, “I will not! I WON’T SIT.” As if that weren’t enough, Miss Bertha is often prone to extreme episodes of despair, anger, and frustration.

The other day, I walked by to see Miss Bertha piteously leaning over her walker, crying profusely. Accustomed to this tragic display, I walked over to her, began rubbing her back, and asked her what was wrong.

Between sobs she sputtered, “I-I just want to leave. This is p-prison!”

Appalled by the idea that she viewed assisted living as incarceration, I said, “No, no, no, Miss  Bertha. This is an assisted living center. This is where we help you take care of yourself a little.”

“N-no! No one lets me leave! I want to be home with my f-family!”

My heart dropped when she said that. I imagined how disorienting and frightening it all must be. Having your loved ones put you in a strange, new place full of smiling strangers.

“Miss Bertha, they always come to visit you. And you have many friends and family that love you very much,” I spoke soothingly.

But rather than calm her as they usually did, my words did something different that day. They incited rage and rebellion.

She sharply turned her head to look at me, visibly grimacing.

“Then get me out.”

Startled, I said, “What?”

“GET ME OUT!” she spat at me with unbelievable vehemence.

Pointing an angry, crooked finger at my chest, she croaked, “I want to leave this place. And you will take me out, right now.” She stamped her walker on the ground as if to emphasize the severity of her point.

Thinking on the fly, to get her to stay for a little while, I blurted, “Miss Bertha, I’m afraid I can’t drive. We’ll have to wait for the bus. Could you stay with us until then?”

Not one to be deterred, she asked, “When is the bus coming?”

“Er, two hours.”

“TWO HOURS!” she violently shook her head at me. “NO! I WANT TO LEAVE NOW. I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOUR GAMES. TAKE ME OUT NOW!”

“Miss Bertha-” I began in a quiet, soothing voice, before she brashly cut me off.

“SHIT!” she exclaimed with the utmost fury.

“Don’t you ‘Miss Bertha’ me, you son of a bitch! I want to leave now!”

Accustomed to spontaneous profanity from the residents, I sadly shook my head and went to get a caregiver, who shortly took my place in consoling her.

I was only a few feet away when I heard another string of horrific profanity. In retrospect, I didn’t leave Miss Bertha because I couldn’t stand being called derogatory names. I left because the nature of her transformation was too much for me.

Just the day before her frightening episode, she had kissed my forehead as if I were her own daughter.

“You’re my best friend,” she whispered.

“Thank you, Miss Bertha.”

Firmly grasping my hand, she continued, “Please don’t leave. I don’t want to be alone.”

Ready to oblige her, I held her hand and waited for her to fall asleep in her room before I left.

And now, here she was screaming profanity at me as if I was her worst enemy. I know it didn’t mean anything. That I shouldn’t take her words too seriously.

I knew that her behavior was the result of her mind’s deteriorating ability to cope with reality and to communicate with others.  I knew that she had lost the ability to self-regulate, to care about the feelings of those around her. I knew it all. It was just a lot to take.

Candid Conversation

P.C.
Political correctness is similar to smearing thick face paint on a grotesque visage, failing to obscure the offensive in a polite guise. The definition of political correctness is “the practice of using speech that conforms to liberal or radical opinion by avoiding language that may cause offense to social minorities.”

While the idea behind political correctness may be to eradicate speech that contains offensive or pernicious implications, it only perpetuates it in a euphemistic guise. Not only that, but by constantly being enforced and practiced by “polite” society, we make it far harder for individuals who aren’t acquainted with the “appropriate” speech to participate in the discussion.

In my efforts to convey my frustration with political correctness, I will discuss the linguistic treatment of the elderly, or the old,  or the senior citizens of our community. At the moment, I believe “seniors” is the politically correct term.

With this in mind, imagine the following circumstances. You’re at work huddled around the water cooler with your fellow colleagues, discussing your views on current political, social, and cultural issues in hushed tones. Then striving to express himself, Frank expresses a rational view but accidentally inserts, “old people” and stops himself, painfully aware of the fact that he has just uttered something politically incorrect. Now this wouldn’t be such an issue if your coworker, Jerry, who is well over fifty years of age, is also participating in the same discussion. All of a sudden, there is tension in the air. Fearful of the fact that he has offended Jerry, Frank awkwardly gulps and changes the subject.

Looking at this painfully awkward discussion, I’m not saying we should be insensitive in our daily discourse, but we certainly should be given the freedom to be honest. By constantly updating the list of words that are socially taboo, we are increasingly hindered in our conversations.

I sincerely wish that the subject of the elderly were the only topic that were censored by political correctness, but it’s not. There’s a whole slew of controversial issues that people struggle to discuss for fear of using the incorrect terminology: Affirmative action, illegal immigration, the United States’ relationship with Middle Eastern nations.

As the intelligent and sensitive individuals that we are, I ask that we be allowed to discuss profound social issues in an open and sincere manner. Why can’t we tolerate politically incorrect speech for the sake of candid conversation? In essence, we should place more emphasis on what we’re saying as opposed to how we’re saying it.