The Oppression of Choice
Many of you no doubt caught Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times, “From South Sudan to Yale.” It drew my personal attention for two reasons. One, I’ve worked on some Sudanese issues, including with a Darfuri refugee, and was curious about the incredible trip of this Yale freshman, Paul Lorem. Two, the headline is a refraction of my original title for the “Nothing Special” memoir–“From Yale to Barbacking: one man’s remarkable journey.” Kristof chronicles the way Lorem, an orphan at 5 in Sudan, was saved by a network of boys at a Kenyan refugee camp a little older than himself. They instilled in him the need to get educated, and as Lorem blossomed, more and more community members helped him along his academic path, culminating in the African Leadership Academy and now Yale.
I was helped along my path to college by guidance counselors and Princeton Review. Kristof notes that “Lorem plans to return to South Sudan after graduation to help rebuild his country.” After my graduation, I worked at Barnes and Noble Bethesda. Lorem’s story is moving and inspiring, and I have no intention of belittling his challenges. But it did get me thinking about “choice,” that double-edged sword of the Special. When one comes from a country like Sudan, and is entrusted with a precious American education, one likely can’t imagine doing too many other things than going back to help rebuild your homeland. It’s a giant burden but it’s also a fairly easy decision. When one comes from economically stable American suburbia, and has the opportunity to realize every dream and follow one’s heart’s desire, he may end up getting a little overwhelmed. The path carries not nearly the same burden as Lorem’s, but much more choice. And this leads me to today’s major theme. Of all the pathologies that go into creating a Special person, choice may be one of the most pernicious and least understood. While choice would seem to be the opener of a hundred doors, it can also leave us paralyzed in the hallway.
When many of our parents were children, boys were expected to wear pants and play sports. Girls were expected to wear dresses and play with dolls. Girls were supposed to grow up and marry boys. Boys were supposed to grow up and marry girls. But in our childhoods of the 80s and 90s, these traditional gender boundaries were melting away. One of my favorite books was “William’s Doll,” by Charlotte Zolotow. In it a boy is teased mercilessly by his friends and even his parents when he asks for a doll like the one his sister got. Mind you he’s a good athlete, but he really wants a doll. Only his grandmother gives him the thing he wants—a realistic doll, and when his parents see how happy he is as a nurturer and caregiver—their hearts melt and they realize how closed minded and senselessly heteronormative they’ve been. Everyone is happy. When I was in a certain mood, the book would make me cry, I enjoyed the resolution so much.
But these gender norms we were smashing also served a purpose! Just as Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak kept a certain, albeit oppressive kind of order, so the old gender lines made life a lot simpler. Today we don’t just need to decide who we want to marry, we have to decide which sex we want to marry, or if we don’t want to get married, well that’s OK too! And gender barriers weren’t the only barriers coming down. Think of your religious upbringing. If you’re like me, you were raised with a certain religious structure, but it was taught to you almost sheepishly. Not only are we in the age of science, but we’re in the age of “Don’t force anything upon your kids or they’ll come to resent it!” In generations past, people had a whole Bible of rules by which to live by—rules that told them who to worship, how to dress, what to eat, when to work and when to rest. While religious communities still exist, and in some cases have become even tighter, the numbers continue to trend secular.
Responding to a 2009 religious affiliation survey showing a doubling of self-described secular Americans, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.” Unlike Mohler, we of the Special Generation were supportive of the trend. We were Special, and couldn’t be beholden to our parents’ religion, or to putting all of our hope and trust in something outside of ourselves. But now that we’ve begun to realize that we’re not quite as Special as we thought we were—that life is painful and filled with setbacks, that you don’t get everything you desire—it would be nice to have someone up there to talk to about it once in a while.
Perhaps no other open-choice has been as challenging for us as occupation. When our parents graduated from college or otherwise entered adulthood, they knew they needed money. For my dad, law promised a way to raise himself out of his circumstances, to put a strong effort forward and get solid, tangible rewards. He went to law school, soon took a job at a firm and worked there for over thirty years. It wasn’t perhaps the fulfillment of every childhood dream he had ever had. But it was steady, enabled him to raise a family, buy a house, and do all the things one expects to do when one becomes an adult. When I graduated college, I wanted to find the career that matched all of the amazing talents I had—the one that would match the striving of my soul and bestow upon humanity the full gifts I had been given! I found theater. Can I get a Shakespeare Whoop woop!
According to one recent study, the average 26-year-old has already had seven jobs. Seven! When we work today at our jobs, we are a far cry from the Greatest Generation nose-to-the-grindstone work-your-way-up through the company and accept a little drudgery–long hours and frequent set-backs. It’s more… just over that hill, just on the other side, if I can leap out of this current job into one where I’m truly following my dreams, then I will have achieved that thing I always dreamed of achieving—fulfillment.
So here we are: omnisexual, unaffiliated, humanistic, multi-potents with absolutely nothing tying us down. As kids, no one told us whom to like, what to worship, which job to take, what path to travel on. We had all the tools—a good head on our shoulders, love and encouragement, enough food on our plate, everything that people never have in a Dickens novel. And because of all this freedom of choice, and the praise and acceptance that came with, we were very, very happy children. But now we are very, very confused adults! There’s no decision our circumstances foisted upon us. When you are offered only a job at the factory, you take the job at the factory. When you’re offered the world, you stand there, trembling, and may have every desire to crawl back into bed.
Luckily, sooner or later lying in bed just doesn’t seem like the best option. We might not realize we need to go back to our homeland and rebuild our country (we don’t), but we might start rebuilding our own expectations for our life. We might start seeking less than total, unbridled fulfillment. We might even get a job in marketing. But then again, we wonder, what if Shakespeare had stopped dreaming and gone into the Globe’s PR department? See, we really, really don’t easily let Specialness go easily!