What Would You Do?

If you could spend your life doing anything in the world, what would you do?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: humans live for our connections with others. It’s simply a fact, and it makes sense that we need to live life in a way that’s acceptable to the people around us. But so many of us end up living as though we don’t need to be accepted by ourselves. How many of us willingly admit that we wish to do one thing, but instead we do something else? Why is that okay?

I have many answers to the question of what I would do if I could do anything, but a big one is becoming a literary or cinematic scholar and studying things like Harry Potter and romantic comedies (haters gonna hate, y’all). Why don’t I do this? Because it’s wacky. It’s not something a lot of people do, and it’s not something I even know how to do. I’m probably not qualified to get into grad school for literature or cinema anyway, and aside from the logistics, I’m also not convinced that the world couldn’t live without this work. What would it matter if I did it anyway? Would I improve anybody’s life?

So instead of doing something that would make me genuinely blissful upon my arrival to work each day, I shall instead do something acceptable. Something that I know how to do, something that I know I’m good at. Something that adds to the lives of others, because my lack of bliss doesn’t so much matter if it makes life better for someone else. Unlike projects of passion, pursuits that seek to help others cannot ever be seen as a waste of time- and what could be worse than wasting my finite amount of time?

I’ll go through life feeling perfectly useful to the world. I’ll help people, and hopefully I’ll empower those people to live their own lives to the fullest. But maybe my heart won’t be all the way in it; maybe it will feel just a bit less full. I’ll use my intelligence and my thoughtfulness to understand others, but maybe my mind won’t feel quite as fulfilled as it does when I make those little literary connections that give me such inexplicable joy. Most importantly of all, maybe my soul will just feel wrong. Because my soul, the thing that makes me me, is what I’m ignoring when I make this decision to play it safe and live my life for everyone else.

And at the end of my time, that time which I’ve agonized over and worked so diligently not to waste, things on the outside will look beautiful. I will have touched others. I will have taught them. I hope that I will have made some changes for the better. Nobody will see that I’ve made it to the end and managed to ignore my heart, my mind, and my soul. Only I will know that.

what would you do

A friend recently sent me a video of a woman who lives life as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. This woman practices karate, eats pizza on the daily, and has even invested in turtle head costumes that look just like the ones in the movies. One may wonder whether she has a mental illness. My question: does it matter? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone so genuinely happy to be living in their own life. Maybe she’s not understood by others. Maybe she’s not helping anyone. But she realizes that, at the end of the day, the one who has to live in your shoes is you. And if it’s only you in there, then you should damn well love it.

The truth is that, for many of us, doing what we would love to do simply doesn’t seem to jive with reality. Maybe not all of us can afford the lifestyle of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; maybe the job we really would like to do doesn’t actually exist. But I’m willing to bet that, if somebody asked what we would do if we could do anything, we wouldn’t answer “be normal.” Anything is possible when we step outside of our societal norms. Maybe we can earn money being a Ninja Turtle; maybe we can be the one who created that niche job.

Whatever we do, we shouldn’t ever settle with, “That would be nice, but it’s not going to happen.” That sentence is a great way to feel safe- and also a great way to have missed out on things like creating the internet, going to the moon, or even giving women the right to vote.

Instead, let’s be brave. Let’s admit to what we wish we could do if we knew how, and let’s build a world in which wanting those things is allowed: a world in which our hearts, minds, and souls are full, a world in which we are celebrated for and supported in following our dreams. Let’s build a world of rom-com theorists and human ninja turtles and people who believe they can fly through space and land on the moon. Maybe if we live in this world, at the end of our time here, we’ll be able to say that actually we did what we wanted with our lives. And we damn well loved it.

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Ever heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment?

Long story short, back in the 70s- before psychologists got serious about using ethical practices in their research- this guy named Philip Zimbardo did a psychological experiment at Stanford. Some of the study’s participants were given the role of prisoner and the rest became the guards. Guards, of course, were supposed to keep watch over prisoners, but they ended up doing so much more. Essentially, the guards totally took advantage of the prisoners (remember, everybody in this situation is just a student participating in a psych study to earn some extra cash!). Guards practiced verbal abuse, invented rules and forced prisoners to follow them, and generally acted in accordance with the idea that, if given power, even “good” people can and will go nuts with it. People talk about this study in conversations about how there’s no hope for humanity because we all have the ability to turn totally evil.

Two summers ago I visited New York City with my brother and we spent a day at the 9/11 Memorial, which was still under construction at the time. We were able to walk around the two enormous fountains, which have victims’ names engraved upon them. The memorial was beautiful, but the most touching moment was when I heard, “Here she is.” Someone had finally found their loved one. I witnessed a reunion of sorts, and the aura was nothing but happy.

In the gift shop, footage of New Yorkers telling their 9/11 stories played on screens around the store. One story in particular has stayed with me. It was about a father with two sons, one who was a firefighter and the other who was in the NYPD. Both sons responded to the falling of the towers. At various times before going, both spoke with their father on the phone. That day, both died. “I have no regrets,” the father said, telling the story. “My last words to both of my sons were ‘I love you.’ You can’t ask for more than that.”

Today, as my own way of remembering, I read some more 9/11 stories. In each one I saw the same things: happiness. Pride. Love. A sense of duty to others. Unimaginable bravery.

I see 9/11 as the anti-Stanford Prison Experiment. This event is a case study in what happens when we are reduced to our humanity and forced to confront our strongest beliefs and values. Communities banned together; people willingly gave their lives; our country, so often divided, in many ways stood as one. In short, we saw how people could be simply good. History shows how people came together, and even in the stories I read fourteen years later, I am overwhelmed by how have come to remember the experience in the most positive way. I can certainly think of some other ways a father might respond to losing his two sons on the same day.

In no way am I saying that it’s good that 9/11 happened. In no way am I reducing its impact to the level of some ill-advised psychology experiment. I believe that, like the Stanford Prison Experiment, nothing like 9/11 should ever happen again. But it did happen, and I think the most respectful thing we can do is learn from it.

Yes, if given the opportunity, people can be extraordinarily bad. People have it within them to become villains. But- maybe more importantly- if given the opportunity, people can also be extraordinarily good. We can become heroes.

We can find plenty of examples of the bad things people do to each other every day of the year. But every year on 9/11 I choose to remember because I want to be floored by everyday people’s heroism. And why should we look at the bad so much more often the good? I propose that we all flip it. Let’s find a way to see the hero in people every day.

And let’s never forget.