A friend asked me what words of encouragement might help a young person who just graduated and must enter the current job market. With jobs being so hard to find, what advice would I offer? Advice is commonly considered to be one’s personal opinion or some kind of general guidance, but advice is a vision word. To “advise” means to give your view of things, to tell how you see the lay of the land. The way I see it, we have entered an extraordinary period of hardship and confusion. Serious dilemmas exist at all levels of culture and the balance of nature is also threatened. It can seem impossible to simply find a job, and at the same time we face seemingly-impossible tasks on a global level.
It is as if all the underlying problems of the world have risen to the surface at the same time.
Most young people know it; they have grown up in an atmosphere of intensifying conflicts, polarizing politics, and increasing environmental troubles. Most also know that despite the political rhetoric, there can be no simple fixes; short-term thinking cannot solve such long-term problems.
It is not just that the economy remains in trouble and that we are mired in the kind of quicksand made from years of political expediency. It is not only that income disparity has become scandalous and that the politics of money has outgrown the instinct for democracy. It is also that there is a poverty of imagination and a lack of courage when it comes to facing the size of the problems and the need for unusual solutions. Stagnation in the economy and “stalemation” in the political system stem from a collapse of imagination and increasing blindness about what a culture is supposed to cultivate and what a civil society is truly about.
There may be few jobs to be found, but there can be no lack of work when it comes to the need to re-imagine education and immigration, to develop better health care and ecological practices, to create economic justice and hold honest elections. The problem is not simply a lack of work or a paucity of jobs. The problem is that genuine solutions to persistent problems require the kind of vision that transcends single-minded ideologies, rigid belief systems, and exaggerated self-interest. The problem is that there is willful blindness and hardening of the heart when it comes to acknowledging the need for people, young and old, to feel valuable, to be able to work and contribute to the general well-being.
The word job means “a piece of work,” and all young people need a piece of work to do and a fair chance at establishing themselves in the world. Something goes seriously awry when accountants and business consultants wind up in charge of other people’s lives instead of other people’s money. Arguing about whether it is government or the private sector that creates jobs misses the point. Creating jobs and giving people a chance to work requires a greater vision and more humane interest than simple profiteering or bottom line thinking. Imagination is required and vision is needed whenever something is being created, even jobs.
Genuine vision reveals that beyond the issue of jobs there is also the deeper struggle for self-realization and the individual need to find a person’s essential life-work. Becoming a genuine person is not the same as having a job; shaping a meaningful life is never a simple piece of work. While considering how to advise young people struggling to see a way forward, I thought of the advice that E.E. Cummings offered when asked to say something to aspiring young poets:
“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any
human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
To become nobody but yourself, to struggle against the tide of sameness and the false security of simply fitting in — that is a fight worth having. To become oneself by finding a way to contribute one’s god-given talents and natural genius to this troubled world; that is the job to keep applying for. The real work in this life is not simply to succeed and “become somebody”; the real issue is to become one’s intended self.
The most revered figures throughout history became memorable because they were uniquely themselves. Each had first to awaken to a vision seeded within them before their life could become instructive to others. Whether they became a spiritual teacher or an artist, a healer or a leader, people remember them because they managed to manifest a unique inner vision that had meaning in the world around them. “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” Cummings said on another occasion.
To glimpse the inner vision that alone can make sense of one’s life, to live with passion and genuine purpose — that is the hardest battle. That is something worth fighting for despite and because the world around us has become increasingly uncertain and chaotic. When major institutions and social systems become disoriented and misguided, there may be no better time to find and follow the pattern already set and waiting to be discovered within the individual soul.
Real satisfaction comes from doing the work our souls would have us do. Yet, it may be necessary to advise young people that the struggle for self-realization and inner meaning has also become much harder to fight.
Cummings gave his advice more than four decades ago when the effects of modern mass culture upon the individual was just becoming evident. That was before the night and day, 24-hour streaming of mass media, mass marketing and overheated political propaganda became the main stream of public life. Becoming one’s true self has always been an upstream battle. By now, the sense of being an individual can easily disappear in the “metrics” of online data, in the subtle distancing supported by social media and amidst the endless polling that diminishes everyone into age segments, income classes and consumer groups.
The human soul may tolerate a “consumer society” in order to survive current circumstances and make a living, but the soul has come to life not simply to consume, but to give its inner gifts. Each soul secretly desires to be part of something greater, something “larger than life,” for we each harbor within ourselves a larger life and greater sense of self. This otherness within is now mostly imagined as something outside oneself. Thus, all the campaigns that promise liberation, be they political or spiritual, be they base advertising or high-energy motivational programs.
Each soul has its share of genius, and genius has boldness in it and a core of imagination intended to transcend the common attitudes and collective patterns. That is axiomatic in great literature and wherever genuine imagination has had a chance to flourish. It is also a key to understanding how mass culture has gotten things mass backward. When someone’s inner genius is recognized and encouraged they will demonstrate something unique and unusual, they will bring a unique vision to contemporary issues and bring innovation where others would simply seek a piece of work. Genius is the spirit that is already there in each person, the inner intention, primary style and way of being that makes a true individual regardless of the pressure to conform to temporary social patterns and contemporary cultural fashions. At the individual level, each person is here to give something that is not just unusual, not only exceptional, but that is unique and valuable by its very nature.
The inner genius for life aspires to meaningful work and genuine purpose. It would have us undertake the seemingly-impossible tasks of transforming culture and helping to heal nature, not because the world can be saved or redeemed in a hurry, but because it is the impossibility of the great problems and projects of life that awakens the sleeping genius within and changes work from a simple job to a life-long, life-enhancing project that serves the dignity and nobility of one’s soul as well as the well-being of one’s community.
In the long run, a culture is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable and wounded people, not by its gross national product or the bottom line of its wealthiest people or ruling classes. More often than not the inner genius and genuine vision in people goes unemployed even amongst those who have enviable jobs and worldly success. Given the size and dimensions of contemporary problems and the fact that all aspects of both culture and nature are threatened, this is the exact time to undertake great projects that will give people meaningful work and a chance to draw upon the genius qualities in each person. By facing the great issues before us and taking on impossible tasks many jobs will be created, but more meaningful work may also be found and more people will turn out to be who they were intended to be.
The education of genius involves an awakening from within that needs a blessing from others more than it needs instruction from them. In these troubled times, when it seems that we all have to graduate to new ways of seeing the world and our place in it, I think of what Goethe, another old and knowing poet wrote:
“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”
For more by Michael Meade, D.H.L., click here.
For more on mindfulness, click here.