Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Slow Venom of "Do What You Only Love Once" (DWYOLO)

At the school where I’ve worked for the past (almost) 20 years, seniors are encouraged to give speeches to the student body. The talks can cover a gamut of topics or themes, from celebrations of friendship to tributes to family, from sharing their religious convictions to sharing rules or lessons they’ve learned from their wisdom-generating 18-years of life.

Inevitably, a class of seniors finds their talks flowing into a thematic current, where a strong majority of them end up covering similar territory. Because part of my job is to try to see the forest more than the trees, I can’t help but make these connections. Thankfully, I’ve learned that it is dangerous and foolish to draw too many conclusions about a graduating class or even a generation of kids by what they stand up and say to their peers in five to 10 minutes.

Still, it's fun to jump to conclusions anyway.

Half a decade ago, I was worried about "kids these days." For three straight years, speech after speech fell along these lines:
  • “The most important thing in life is to have fun.”
  • “Find something that makes you happy, and make that your life.”
  • “Do what you love.”
  • “Live for the now.”
  • “You can’t love anything or anyone else until you love yourself.”
In the last few years, the themes have gradually changed in a way that makes me feel more confident in the next generation. The themes of late are things like:
  • “You find yourself when you are a part of something bigger than you.”
  • “Find a calling, and make that your life.”
  • “Nothing comes easy, but dedication pays off.”
  • “If your life is only about finding your own happiness, you will never find it.”
Please understand that not every kid in these stretches spoke only of these topics. Rather, it’s more like the way North Carolina was a blue state in 2008 and a red state in 2012, with a preponderance of the talks leaning one way then the other.

Ironically, at the same time the seniors at my school seem to be moving away from “happiness” and “fun” as end-all be-alls and moving toward “selflessness” and “belonging,” the youth culture writ large has embraced YOLO and DWYL as acronymic mantras.

Will these younger kids, who seem to have a firmer grasp on what creates true and more lasting happiness, turn out to be psychologically healthier adults? They are a more devout collective, mostly Christian, but even those of other faiths seem more deeply connected to a spirituality than the previous bunch. Are they merely spouting off what their cool youth group leaders have drilled into them in endless small groups and through incessant Super-Hip DVD-based Bible Study programs, or have they discovered in their own struggles a deeper and more personal and, hopefully, more durable conviction? Who's to say? Time will tell, right?

I only know this. When I would hear that first group talk of personal happiness, of self-satisfaction, of YOLO or DWYL, I was quietly praying they would find some experiences that shook them out of their more shallow mindsets. I was hoping they would come to realize that their notions of “love” were doomed to crack and shatter like that thin layer of ice on a frozen puddle.

This is the most misleading and dangerous quote
a teenager could ever love. Other than, perhaps,
"You can only find God through snake-handling."
They seemed to believe if you did something you loved, you could wake up every day and, in every moment, be bursting with excitement and energy in your life.

Real Love is hard, and frustrating, and full of potholes. It’s full of agony and disappointment and sorrow. It’s true in relationships, in careers, in hobbies.

I’ve always preferred saying “calling” and “passion” over “doing what I love.” The latter sounds too much like fairy tale fortune cookie wisdom.

I love many people, and I love my job. I love my life. Not every minute of every day. Hell, some days, not even a minute. But that’s how I know it’s all real. And I know all of it takes commitment and focus, sweat and tears to maintain. And that’s why I can wake up most days feeling grateful and, yes, happy. I wish the same every year, not just for the students I get to know, but for young adults everywhere.

Kids these days, I think, get this. They don't want to overdose on pessimism or harsh realism, but they respect adults who speak frankly, who don't condescend, who don't work too hard to sugar-coat matters. The less they actually buy into DWYL and YOLO as guideposts, the better off they will be.

Read more:
Slate column about DWYL
ABC News feature on YOLO


Robert Berman said...

Years ago, my pastor came from a blue collar background as a print shop worker. I'll never forget him telling me that "Find a job that you love to do" was an upper class conceit, that most people in the world were doing well to find a job that (1) they were capable of doing, and that (2) provided a steady income. Satisfaction came not from the mechanics of the job itself, but from the way the job ensured the survival of one's family.

Billy said...

@Robert - Thanks for those comments. The DWYL link I provided goes along similar lines. But I'd go one step further and suggest that some of the happiest people I've ever met, even in the upper classes, weren't always working some magic dream job. I actually know one or two happy lawyers and accountants, but nobody wakes up every day wetting themselves from excitement for litigating or auditing. "The LEGO Movie" mocked this mythical attitude far better than I could in its opening scene of their character going to work, every day, super-mega-giddy and excited, to the theme song (same song every day) of "Everything is Awesome."

Daisy said...

"Nobody wakes up every day wetting themselves from excitement for litigating or auditing". I love that sentence. I do not love you using the phrase "kids these days." I refuse to admit that you are old enough to use such a phrase.