*Please note that this article is an opinion-editorial.
I am in my seventh year living in Southern California, and I’ve reached that point where it feels like home to me. For instance, I actually cared about who was elected Mayor of Los Angeles earlier this spring. I was (and still am for many reasons, not all of them self-serving) elated when Governor Brown announced the state government would be operating in a surplus by the end of the year. I went air conditioner shopping during our recent heat wave. I am a Disneyland annual pass holder. I have favorite food trucks I follow on Twitter. I am invested in local sports teams; Dodger games are regularly on the TV in my home. Seriously, if you live in LA and you don’t watch the Dodgers on TV, you’re missing out on hearing the great Vin Scully call baseball games. Vin is a national treasure. It’s like living in LA and never having gone to see Carson host The Tonight Show. Or living in Las Vegas and never seeing Sinatra at the Sands. When I travel back to my original home area (the Kansas City, Missouri, area), it seems more and more distant and foreign to me with each visit, a lot of suburban sprawl and bland, cinderblock architecture.
One of the great things about the rise of social media in our everyday lives has been allowing me to live in Los Angeles and still keep in touch with friends and family back in the Midwest. It’s kind of fascinating to view snapshots of people’s lives from the distance of cyberspace. Many of the people I went to high school and college with are married with families of their own. Following them on social media has also made me feel kind of terrible about the way some of their lives have gone. I’m sure they would argue with me that everything is great and that they’re wonderfully happy and healthy. But, I’m not sold on it.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I’ve seen an alarming increase in friends’ Facebook posts about how much people hate having jobs in corporate America, that they love their families, and their families keep them going while they trudge along and tow the lines for their corporate overlords. They give five days a week to their masters and get two back in return. A friend of mine posted on Facebook today that he finds his work incredibly unsatisfying, and that he only does it to support his wife and kids. I think that’s noble, to do something you hate to support your kids. I really do. I also think it’s kind of sad and kind of stupid.
Yesterday, we celebrated our nation’s independence, and space aliens blowing up the White House. People spent the day yesterday barbecuing in the name of freedom. I’ve spent the past five years listening to conspiracy theorists rant about how Obama is trying to take our freedom from us. Last week we celebrated a court decision that granted new and equal freedoms to members of the LGBT community. If you’re an American, you hear the word “freedom” a lot. A lot! It’s become a catchphrase. But, does all that babble about freedom ever really penetrate our skulls? Do we overuse the word to such a degree that it’s become meaningless except for political contexts? Because, I see a lot of unfulfilled people living in a free society.
This is what freedom in America means: you are free to choose any life you want for yourself. If you can dream it, you can chase after that dream until the day you die. You don’t need to ask for permission, you just have to be bold. Ask a bunch of seven year olds what they want to be when they grow up. No seven year old ever answers that question with, “I want to be a mid-level corporate minion with a minivan in the suburbs.” And yet, here we are in 2013, a bunch of mid-level corporate minions with minivans living in the suburbs. People have taken lives of unlimited freedom and potential and chosen to go down Robert Frost’s “The Road More Frequently Traveled.” People have traded in their talent and their dreams to live lives that are, even by their own admission, deeply unsatisfying. Thoreau’s instructions for us to “live the life you have imagined” have fallen on deaf ears. We’ve chosen what’s safer, more predictable, and more risk-averse, but we’re not any happier for it. And, isn’t that an unfair pressure to put on your kids? “I’m doing a job I hate for you kids, so you’d better give my life some satisfaction and sense of purpose.”
Somewhere along the way, people decided to settle on living in a way that was easier. We were told by guidance counselors to be reasonable with career choices instead of reckless. By not wanting to see us potentially fail, people who care about us may have crushed our aspirations and the potential for the amazing lives that might have been. We need to stop listening to all that.
If you want to be an actor, then be an actor, goddammit! And, be a great one! You have the freedom to make that choice. If you want to be a comic book artist, then be a comic book artist. Be the best damn comic book artist the world has ever seen! You have the freedom to live that life. If you want to be a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, then be those things. You have the freedom to chase your dreams. If you want to make video games or movies or music or art, then make those things. You have the freedom to live a life of creativity and the richness that comes from seeing your vision through to fruition. Don’t settle for the minivan unless deep down in your heart of hearts that’s your ultimate dream. I’m not a soothsayer of any kind, but I believe the lives we most admire in other people are the ones that dared to step out of what was the social norm or the expected. You don’t have to be Brad Pitt to make a living as an actor. You don’t have to be Dave Grohl to make a living as a musician. You’ll never know what your life can be until you take advantage of the freedom you’ve been given. It doesn’t matter if you’re still a teenager or in your golden years. We still have the freedom to choose. Our lives are often defined by the work we chose. It’s vitally important for our work and, by extension, our lives to have real value for us.