letters with a penpal

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

K, in an email:

One of my favorite things to tell people is, “You don’t have to live up to your potential.” I think that causes a lot of stress, you know, people thinking that they need to live up to some kind of imaginary standard that their parents or society or whatever set for them. Really, does living up to one’s potential make one happy? What if one is perfectly content making $15 an hour and playing video games all the time? What if one is happy being a stay-at-home housewife? What if one is happy writing fanfiction and never making a penny from their writing? Why should that person strive for more?

I responded:

As for your question about potential — and it’s a legitimate one that I feel strongly about! — I don’t have any clear responses. I can’t answer with a resounding cry in the affirmative because it already makes me feel deeply uneasy that so much of the youthful population in this country is so politically disengaged and uncaring about anything but their material welfare. So for example, with the housewife, I would feel the kneejerk desire to talk to her about feminism (tempered with the understanding that if she wants to, she wants to — it’s her life). For me, the answer to “Why should a person strive for more?” is very clearly one of, “How can I/any conscionable person not, when there are so many appalling problems in this world?” But at the same time, I understand that that is an unreasonable standard to set for most people, because most people only want to pursue their lives and BBQ on days off and drink with their friends and have a partner/family to cherish and love.

As for your hypotheticals, I think the question(s) is: Does the person want to live up to their potential because their inner motivations drive them to do so? If not, and they’re driven purely by their hectoring parents, would they feel emotionally fulfilled by gaming/housewiving/fanfic-writing/a combo thereof for the remainder of their lives — even if no one were around to make them feel bad about it? But no one can ever fully separate themselves from society. Even if no one was standing over you shaking their fists and telling you to go to law school, we would still read, watch television, have friends with careers, and be subjected to other normalizing forces. Given all that, is there some point at which “being made to feel bad” is indistinguishable from “feeling bad because I myself feel that I could/should do more”? In other words, how do you separate environmentally-influenced emotions from your own, innate feelings? Since the environment will always be there, can you?

In other other words, is it even possible to free yourself from the stress of expectations, whether externally or internally imposed?


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