About a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.
Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?
When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least.
There are all kinds of jobs that are not exciting or pleasurable, but that need to be done. And they are honest labor that we should honor, and in doing so, we should also look around ourselves and realize a few things:
First, that our choices are often constrained by outside forces— social, environmental—and of course ability, as well, but in some ways, this is the least difficult to overcome. But those who work at jobs that aren’t exciting didn’t end up there because they didn’t try hard enough or dream big enough— ended up there because they made the best choices they had available to them, generally. We live in a society that hobbles some people, then congratulates those born on home plate for their excellence for getting there.
Second, that it’s fine to dream, but that we should also understand that duty is as important as aspiration. All of us should recognize our ties to one another—chasing dreams seems so often to come at the expense of those we claim to love. I have noticed many “articles” speaking of love and marriage that think that they should be about passion foremost, and the idea that responsibility and obligation might be more important, that love also means living through times utter boredom, irritation, and other emotions that simply aren’t romantic (even hatred is more “interesting” than some of the feelings that make up a real relationship) is perhaps given lip service to, at most, followed by a chaser of “if you don’t feel it, it’s not real.” The same with dream—chasing: it comes at a cost. Passion is exciting, but it’s not lasting—it’s cyclical. We as a society have forgotten a lot of what it takes to get through the parts of life that are difficult, not because they’re dangerous and scary, but because they’re monotonous. And yet, these are the things that are essential to make it possible for those exciting people to chase their dreams.
In the first tractate of the Talmud (Berachot 58b) we are reminded, “Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on one of the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, Blessed is He that discerns secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me. [For] he used to say: What labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.”
Society—perhaps most especially the “exciting” parts of it—depend upon having all these things “done for me.” Which means that someone has to do them. Perhaps we should take some time to wonder if instead of pursuing dreams, it might be worthwhile to learn how to do something boring, over and over again, until we gain perfection at it.
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