Existential Advising

When I stop to think about it, my job is way existential (as Cher Horowitz once said). My students are in search of what is meaningful to them. A purpose to their own existence. A reason for their place and time. An answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” but more importantly, I believe, an answer to the question “Why?” Why is it something you want to pursue?

Oddly enough, this is rarely explored by students. Should I expect teenagers to know what they want to do with the rest of their lives? Hardly. I don’t expect people in their 40’s to know. You can plan and guess, but it’s only that. As Alanis once sang:

You may never be or have a husband/
You may never have or hold a child/
You will learn to lose everything/
We are temporary arrangements.

How existential of her. But how unexistential of my students. It’s one thing to expect a product from someone, and another to expect a process. And that is where the system has failed. The system being family, schools, communities, and self. There’s not enough questions like:

What fascinates you?
What strengths do you want to enhance?
What are you passionate about?
What do you want to learn?
What kind of problems do you like to solve?

But there are plenty of these “results-based” questions floating out there, muddying up the murky waters of self-discovery:

What do you want to be when you grow up?
What’s your major?
What kind of job will you get with that degree?
Will that make you any money?

And that last question holds part of the answer. Money. Consumerism. We have gotten to think too much about the purchase of a product, the sale of a good or service, and we’ve entangled that ideology with education. It’s become a business, like everything else in the world. People equate earning a degree with becoming a finished product. Freshly minted from the education assembly line, I’m stamped for approval, my work here is done. Time to cash in my degree for a lucrative career. No more learning required.

Too bad we can’t return the unsatisfying portion for a full refund. There are a lot of partial graduates out there.

And I don’t voice this concern merely to grumble. That’s the easy part. I say it because I’m a believer in tough love when it’s needed. And in so many ways, people of this nation need to wake the fuck up. Kids may be so overly active with extracurriculars and after-school lessons and enrichment, but they are mostly for the wrong reasons. It’s for a game of one-upmanship over peers or for self-promotion. Volunteer work is done for selfish reasons. The altruistic hook, as the cynics would say. And this time, the cynics have hit the nail.

I say this because teens haven’t suddenly become more selfless and aware. Oh, that exists, of course. But more often, parents have bullied them into these activities for vicarious and victorious purposes. The bar has been raised. The competition is fierce. Everyone must be a winner. Everyone is above the mean. Everyone is a princess or a little emperor. And if you don’t think so, by god, I’ll call you up and tell you how fucking fabulous my son and my daughter truly are. Because I’ve groomed them that way. I’ve sacrificed my life for their betterment. I’m creating a winning scenario for them. I, I, I… Hmm. Another hook of the individualistic consumer culture we live in? There’s no “I” in “asshole.” So quit being one, parents of the world.

The point is ultimately a positive one. I’m issuing a call to the process of thinking. Oh, it doesn’t sound so fancy or edgy, and it doesn’t pop. But I’m not an advertiser getting paid loads to create fake syndromes and then name the drugs fabricated to cure them. I’m an academic advisor of the existential order. And as such, I urge the parents of the world to ask the real important questions of your children. Find out what they are passionate about. Provide them with experiences that will help them find their interests. Follow their lead on what they like. And my favorite, encourage them to understand there are no guarantees.

That’s right, there’s no insurance policy on happiness. People have to follow their passions and seek experiences in life, and dare I say, fail a time or two. The most successful people in the world have had mega-failures. They weren’t afraid to fall down; they were courageous enough to keep getting up.

As a Japanese proverb goes: Fall down six times; stand up, seven.

We cannot insulate our youth from the trials of life. If we do, they will create their own conflicts and they will be petty ones, trust me. I’ve heard numerous cell phone conversations about “she said that he was all and I was like and he said um well and so like I don’t know.” There’s something to be said about knowing who you are by having to overcome your obstacles. In the olden days, we called this character-building. And it’s a strong character who can dodge the punches, take a few, learn for the next time, and move forward with that wisdom.

We all have the ultimate responsibility for our choices. We cannot fault others in the decisions we make. I preach this axiom every day. But the corollary is this – we must also model the responsibility of choice - both the positive and negative. I believe that leading by example and providing a script for how to make choices can encourage others to do the same. That doesn’t mean they must make the same choices; again, it’s about the process, not the outcome. If we can achieve in this process, perhaps then understanding will become more valued. Now there’s a commodity worth selling. If only I could package it up and sell it for a mint. Think of the disease and disorder that could be treated with a prescription of understanding. And it comes without the laundry list of side effects, spoken faster than the speed of sound.

But where was I… I digress.

When I stop to think about it, my job is way existential. I am paid to help people realize their purpose in life. Sure, it isn’t always glamorous as that. Often it’s routine and verbatim responses. And some students are not willing, ready, or able to have that deeper conversation. But for those who get it or those who I see getting closer to getting it, that is satisfying. The truth is inside waiting to be drawn out. The genie wants to be out of that bottle. But once free, he’s going to take stock of his existence, furrow his brow, and ask, “What will become of me now?” Feel free to send him my way. I have a few things to say…


Bryan said...

I think you ought to send this to the local high school news paper, Chris.

Anonymous said...

I think you ought to send this to the local high school, Chris.

(Second time I'm sending this as my Blogger name seems to be no good around here anymore.)

Army said...

Bryan... do you think I should omit the use of "fuck" and "asshole" before I mail it off, though?

Hmm... that's actually a tough call!