Personal Fulfillment vs Social Responsibility

One of the biggest mistakes in today’s American culture, in my opinion, is the idea that you should definitely, absolutely, always always always chase your dreams.

The reason that I say that is not to tell anyone that their dreams are wrong, or stupid, or unattainable — although we can have that conversation too, if we want to.

No, the reason that I say this is because too often the interpretation is simply that people have an obligation to change their lives if they are unhappy, regardless of how it will impact the things that are going right in their lives.

Let me explain.

I absolutely believe that there are lots of people who can chase their dreams and be really fulfilled when they do. There are tons of stories of people who quit their jobs to do something else. However, when you dig into those stories, most of those people fall into one of two categories: people who had enough money that they could take the risk without completely sacrificing their security; and people who were not already “well-established” in marriages or other similar relationships. Many of their stories finish with the phrase “I’ve never been happier,” and others take that to mean that if you only chase your dream, you will also reach a higher state of happiness.

But when you’re in your mid-thirties with a mortgage and a kid and student loan debt still hanging overhead and a car payment and a good-paying job that you hate but that gives you security and health insurance…

Quitting could cost us everything. Quitting could mean burning through savings in under a year, losing health insurance, losing our home, losing our reliable car, losing our independence. It could mean losing my self-respect and the respect of others.

“But you’d be free of that job!”

Yes, but every day that I was not successfully earning enough to support my family, I would hate myself a little bit more for being greedy about my perceived need for “happiness” through some other job.

“But you shouldn’t spend that much time doing something you hate!”

No, and wars shouldn’t be fought, and crime shouldn’t occur, and poverty shouldn’t still exist, and the Cubs shouldn’t keep stinking it up so bad, and all of that still happens too.

I have a responsibility to my wife and to my daughter. I will fulfill that responsibility until I am unable or until I am forbidden. I don’t understand why anyone would ask me to do differently, even if it meant that for a few hours a day, I would be “happier.”

If we all pursued our dreams, who would collect the garbage? If we all pursued our dreams, who would vacuum the damn floor? If we all pursued our dreams, we’d be so wrapped up in ourselves that we wouldn’t take the time to think about others.

I’m not saying I’ll never do it. I’m saying I can’t do it unless the time is right. I don’t know for sure that the time will ever be completely right, but it’s sure as hell wrong at the moment.

Where this starts to hurt is when I see others pursuing their dreams and being reasonably successful at it. I see people achieving things I would like to achieve, and it’s remarkable. Sometimes I’m happy for them. Sometimes I’m not, and I wish that weren’t so.

But most of the time — with very few exceptions — I see what those people don’t have that I do, and I wouldn’t trade places with them for the world.

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3 Responses to Personal Fulfillment vs Social Responsibility

  1. Michele says:

    Except I think you are assuming that change happens over night. That you just name the goal and then poof it happens IF you were willing to sacrifice EVERYTHING for it.
    If you want a different job, consider opportunities. If you can’t quit and find a new one then take on a volunteer task, work on some committee, take a class, have yourself seen as something other than what you do right now and opportunities will come your way over time. Give an hour or two a week towards that change even if it means giving up something else to do it. It may take time but at least you will be in movement.

    Everyone has responsibilities even if they are different than yours they may be just as hard or just as hard for that person.

  2. Nice post! I think it’s your overall happiness that counts. You may hate your job, but if doing that job means that you and your family are happy, then that’s OK. But if you hate your job and it makes you so unhappy that it ruins your relationships with others, including your family, then you should do something about it. Everybody would benefit from that change.

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