Take it or leave it.

Monday, February 2, 2015


Shortly before my 19th birthday, I came to my parents. It happened midway through my first year of college. I told them, I am not interested in playing any sort of conventional role in society and have no foreseeable need for a college degree. Up till now I have been the model student, brother and son, done everything you or those in authority have asked of me, and now I’d like to live my life as I see fit. And so I’m dropping out of school.

My argument was, if you really don’t feel interested in doing something, should you force yourself to do it? Sure, all my life I had done what I didn’t want to do. Doesn’t every kid? It’s what we call homework. But now I didn’t have to be a student if I didn’t want to. Shouldn’t enthusiasm be a driving and directing force in life, and because I had no enthusiasm for my studies, I shouldn’t force myself to attend school.

So I stopped attending class for a week before my mother convinced me to return to school. Please, she said, we’ve never had a college graduate in the family, and you’ve always been such a good student. So I went back. The following year, also in winter, I flirted with the notion of dropping out again. This time it lasted 3 days before I was back in class, again at my mother’s behest. By way of enticement, we struck a deal. I could quit my job waiting tables and my parents would assume my car payments and provide me with spending money. All I had to do was focus on school. This worked for a time. I took more classes, and my grades improved. But when the following winter came around, again I saw no use for a higher education, and so I went so far as to withdraw from the quarter. At last, I was a free man. But I had nothing to do. And it didn’t feel right to do nothing in a household where everyone else was either at work (my parents) or in class (my brothers). So when spring came around I was once again enrolled, this time resolving to complete my degree. I started drinking coffee. This stimulant made it much easier to take courses I wasn’t interested and memorize facts I could otherwise do without. And the following spring I graduated with a major in history.

I use the phrase “coming out,” rather than dropping out, because while both expressions have a negative connotation (at least until the present century), what I experienced was akin to what my younger brother went through at around the same time. How to tell our parents that he was physically attracted to men? And when? Or should he try to live up to their expectations for him and deny his feelings in favor of solitude, or satisfy them behind closed doors, or perhaps have a wife just for show - a la J. Edgar Hoover, if you believe the film? In the end he chose to be who he was, though he had a little help from circumstances I won’t get into.

After graduating college I went to the job board at UCLA and browsed positions available to history majors. That space of the peg board was blank. So I got a job at a restaurant. Which didn’t even require a high school degree. I had vague aspirations to apply to business school, but family issues (death and divorce) led me to redirect my course and become an aspiring writer instead. Credit cards let me prolong to this dream, which eventually led to bankruptcy. I tried my hand at settling down again with a serious girlfriend, working for a time as a high school teacher. Finally, a job that required a college degree. A job I found stultifying and draining. Just like the degree that led to it. Tired of feeling disenchanted and stuck in traffic, I went back to school, this time to become a medical doctor. Med school doesn’t require a college degree, only 2 years worth of credits. I did a year of residency before I decided the practice of medicine was a business and it wasn’t for me. Twenty years after doing it the first time, I had come full circle and came out, or dropped out again. Why buy into society if you don’t agree with where it’s headed. Rather than work a job you despise to have a life you don’t want with someone you don’t get along with, just go it alone and reduce your wants. Always my motto. So I lived it. And I’m not alone. Most work too much, and find what they do either boring or downright despicable. So why do it? Nothing better to do and because they have to. To pay for stuff we don’t need.

In a recent poll, 80% of people in industrialized countries agreed with the statement “I could happily live without most of the things I own.” Conspicuous consumption did not work out. Where did it get us anyway? To global warming, overpopulation and pollution. To living on top of each other. More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and the UN estimates that by 2050 it will be 66%.

Paramahansa Yogananda said it best, in his little gem of a book “The Science of Religion.” Money is necessary as a means to fulfill basic needs (food, shelter, water), but so little of it suffices, beyond which it is superfluous if not harmful. When money becomes an end in itself, to be hoarded or for the sake of the status and possessions that come with it, it becomes a false idol, and the moneymaker a slave in its service.

Despite a swelling population, there is more than enough of everything to go around. One website tells us: “World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 calories per person per day.”

If we all were true to our natures and lived a simpler life, we could all do what we found most fulfilling, even if that means simply to be.

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