Saturday, March 7, 2009

Heritage and Careers

Careers are important. They last decades. They’re the means we have of making a living. If we enjoy them, life can be very rewarding. Of course the opposite is also true. To a large degree, we are judged by how we make a living. It’s also true that we’re judged on how lucrative this living is. This is all quite obvious and so it often comes as a surprise to learn that careers have not always been so important as they are today.

It used to be that heritage was much more important than careers. Who you were was more important than what you did. Our names reflect this. Last names are known to genealogists as surnames. They represent - at least they used to - a multi-generational family.

The other day at church, someone asked me (being a relative newcomer to the congregation) if I were related to the Wellses from the area (of California). I am not. My paternal ancestors did come from England (like other Wells families in the US) but they migrated to Utah, where my father’s family primarily resides.

I only mention this incident because it only happened once. For the most part, people are much more interested in my career (I’m an entomologist) than in my last name. This is true even though the California Wellses are fairly well known and respected.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Societies that are based entirely on family influences, such as inheritance, can be onerous at times. It can happen that fortunes made by one generation are passed to subsequent generations that don’t deserve them at all. It can also happen that the memory of notorious individuals can plague a family for a long time.

America, on the other hand has always been somewhat different. It is a place were these problems virtually disappeared. If you were hardy enough, industrious enough and smart enough you could make it on your own. You didn’t need to rely on the virtues of your name to get ahead. You did it yourself. America was founded by this kind of people. They largely define our American culture. This is something that we are proud of - at least I am.

But somewhere along the line, we lost something important. We lost a sense of being grounded - a sense of who we are. It might seem at first glance that it was our adventuresome spirit that caused this. But this is not true. Striking out into the wilderness, taking ownership of and responsibility for the land and teaching our children the faith of our fathers was not a repudiation of heritage. It was an extension of it. But what happened next was not. We began to migrate to cities.

Once our pioneering spirit led us from the farm to the city, we started on a course that led inevitably to where we are today. I certainly don’t mean to imply that the pioneering spirit is to be blamed for this. I would be a hypocrite to do so. But I do mean to point out that by leaving our land and our faith, we are losing our heritage as well; and when we lose our heritage, we no longer have an accurate sense of who we are. In such a condition, only our careers seem to matter.

Many of us are good at our careers and take satisfaction in doing quality work in a profession that benefit’s the world. In spite of this, we wonder why we aren’t happy. Maybe we think that we just need more things and all will be well. Then we wonder, after we have acquired them, why happiness continues to elude us.

Another symptom of our disease is the epidemic of diffidence that plagues us. It might seem ironic that a society so overcome by pride, can also be so burdened with self doubt, but it is nonetheless true. It’s sad that so many good people live out their lives without a sense of self-worth. Or, just as troubling, live out their lives with a false sense of self worth.

I don’t presume to have discovered the way to make everybody happy. I don’t think such a possibility even exists in the world we currently live in. Tragedy is often our lot and joy is all too fleeting. Nonetheless, there are several universal truths regarding happiness that should be more fully appreciated. In particular I refer to the important relationship between happiness and sustainability. In a selfish world, this relationship is usually ignored. Selfish people want to be pleased immediately and are never completely satisfied. Such an attitude is hardly concerned with replenishment. Instead, it lives in a world dominated by acquisitiveness: of objects, of influence, of diversion, and even of love. Responsibilities to children may or may not be ignored, but responsibilities to parents, grandparents and unborn descendents almost always are.

I don’t mean to imply that selfishness is a disease solely of career-minded inhabitants of cities. Rural and religious people alike can be just as selfish. But it isn’t selfishness that I’m considering so much as happiness. In this light, cities and careerists do not have a very good record.

A truly unfortunate circumstance often occurs when highly motivated careerists seek to find fulfillment in religion. These individuals often frame their lives around an assumed personal destiny and live zealously to fulfill it. All too often this leads to disenchantment and despair when happiness does not materialize or if the destiny turns out to be no destiny at all.

I don’t mean to be flippant about this, and I certainly don’t wish to disparage destiny. My point is that lives that become separated from the human requirements of heritage and faith are handicapped when it comes to happiness. This can happen even with a solid grounding in traditional mores.

On the other hand, lives that focus on family - especially inter-generational families - are not handicapped in this way. The selfish draw of careerism looses its pull, and excellence is turned inwards to emerge as a quiet faith and a life of service. Of course we have to make a living. Hopefully we will be so fortunate as to find a satisfying career. Let’s just not make the mistake of forgetting who we are.

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