People love to give advice. If you actually earned two cents every time someone gave you their two cents, you’d be wealthy at the drop of a dime. We’re saturated with suggestions from every direction and it can be overwhelming. Some advice is extremely beneficial, like “Don’t take sleeping pills and Ex-Lax at the same time” or “Stay out of East St. Louis at night.” On the flip side, a broad swath of the advice we intake ends up sounding like hot garbage, because everyone’s on a different journey and everyone’s choices are unique to their own preferences and situations. What works for your neighbor might not necessarily work for you, and vice versa.
Our American society carries with it a plethora of “norms” that were cultivated in eras gone by, yet are still kept alive by people who insist that you must do something simply because “that’s the way it’s always been done.” I’m convinced that most people are afraid of “different,” and it genuinely angers them when they encounter someone blazing their own trail. How dare you think for yourself by not following the herd! Come with me as I explore a few of these unwritten expectations and examine why they shouldn’t always be the default requirement for everyone.
#1 – “You must have kids.” Yep, we’re still dealing with this one. This notion is supported by people as exalted as Pope Francis all the way down to your intrusive relative who just can’t understand why “you’re being so selfish” (and let’s not forget everybody’s favorite: “oh, you’ll change your mind; everybody has kids”). The truth is, not everyone is cut out to be a parent. Some of us feel like we’re more destined to be an awesome aunt or uncle, or maybe we want to spend our time helping people in need through charitable work. Maybe some of us know we wouldn’t make great parents and so we choose to not go down that road. If someone showed up at your door with a St. Bernard and said, “Here, you gotta take this dog,” would you do it? That’s a lot of responsibility, so you might say no. If you don’t want someone thrusting all the responsibilities of dog ownership upon you, maybe you should think twice before telling someone they should have a kid. That’s a helluva bigger obligation than a four-legged creature that poops in your front yard.
On the flip side, what if you want to have a boatload of kids? You want a houseful of children and you won’t stop until you can fill every position on a baseball team? Go for it. If you can adequately provide for all those kids and give them all the love they need and deserve, have at it.
#2 – “You must buy a house.” Not everyone wants to go deep in debt. Not everyone is skilled at home improvement tasks. Not everyone needs a three-bedroom, two-bath split-level on a corner lot to feel accomplished. If you own a house or want to own a house, that’s great. But how about we stop judging people’s worth based on where they live?
#3 – “Take the highest-paying job you can find, even if it makes you miserable.” Sure, money is important. But you know what’s more valuable than money? Happiness. Contentment. Purpose. Value. Your health. I once saw a quote that said, “If you’re only doing a job for money, then all you’ll get from the job is money.” A 40-hour-a-week job takes up almost 24% of your life every week. Do you really want to spend a fourth of your working life dreading that place that pays you to work with those people you can’t stand and do those tasks that make you feel underappreciated?
#4 – “Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice so you can have a comfortable retirement.” I completely understand the importance of saving and investing money for future benefit, and I feel I do a good job with that. However, I also understand the importance of living right now in the present. No one is guaranteed tomorrow, so why are we so allergic to just enjoying today for today?
One of my favorite movies is Dazed and Confused. Aside from being a thoroughly enjoyable flick, it also imparts some wise words if you pay attention. There’s a scene where Cynthia, Tony, and Mike are cruising around town and Cynthia (played by Marissa Ribisi) offers up this gem:
“God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?… If we are all gonna die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.”
#5 – “If you want to find God, you have to sit in a pew every Sunday morning.” Generations that came before me were taught the holy gospel of perfect attendance. I know someone who once told me I was going to hell if I missed just one Sunday of church… to which I thought, “If I’m going to hell for missing church, then I probably punched my ticket wayyyyyyyy before then.” I completely understand and respect that worship is incredibly important to some people. Among other things, it provides spiritual guidance, the gift of music, and heartwarming fellowship. I also understand that church (and organized religion in general) is not for everyone. I’ll say it again for those in the back: we’re all on different journeys, and even if you are seeking God or spiritual enlightenment, you’re not guaranteed to find it at your local house of worship. Maybe you feel closer to God when you’re out walking on the trails, volunteering at the local food bank, or cradling your newborn grandson.
Going beyond the realm of just Christians, I would feel terrible if I ever chastised someone for not being a Christian or not believing in God. I know people who attend church religiously (pun intended), I know people who don’t want anything to do with organized religion, and I know people in between who are struggling to figure out what they truly believe. Those people are all good souls, and I’m not interested in creating an arbitrary hierarchy based on people’s intimate beliefs. We can all be good people wherever we are, mentally and geographically.
In summary, if there’s anything you can take from this post, it’s this: do what makes you happy. Is it hurting anyone? No? Then do it. Life is not “one size fits all.” Make choices based on what you think is best for your own situation, even if people are barking in your ear that you’re doing it wrong. If you’re one of those people who loves to tell others what they should be doing, just remember that you’ll never know someone else’s full story. You’re giving them advice based on what you see on the surface. If you took time to learn more about someone’s history, their struggles, and their behind-the-scenes efforts, you’d be more likely to keep your two cents to yourself.