In my brief but colorful existence, I have encountered only two modes of being human: connected and disconnected. People in “connected” mode are those who know what truly matters. They look at the world and don’t see an endless ladder or a route to an accumulation of things, but the beauty of the present. Such people do not need to derive their joys from outer achievements. They know they have nothing to prove; their existence in harmony with nature and their world is enough.
But few people function in this mode.
As a student about to graduate, I’m expected to check the box next to “disconnected.” Once you hit high school (sometimes earlier), you enter the preparation for adulthood, and gain an outlook that is likely to stay with you the rest of your life, if unchanged. Suddenly, everything you do becomes part of a record, and every activity you undertake is an endeavor to prove your worth. Getting the highest grades is no longer about being proud of yourself; it is a matter of survival and competition. Clubs are no longer just a happy passion, but a resume filler. “Volunteering,” an act meant to be altruistic and voluntary becomes a grueling occupation, rewarded by number of hours, not contribution. I volunteered for 8 hours and did nothing good for myself or the community, and then 1 hour at a different place where I made 10 people feel cared-for. I can only smile back at the hour, but it technically doesn’t matter. I can smile at learning things, but not if I don’t show a good test score. Ultimately, what one takes away from a high school is that it doesn’t matter what you do, or why; it matters what you can say you’ve done, and what you can write on a resume, to impress a college or employer. It doesn’t matter who you really are or if you’re truly a good human. And they wonder why many high-achieving students seem to be half-living.
Similarly, many remark on the “presentation” mode Facebook users are accustomed to in which they carefully craft the right story and photo to show their best self, sometimes taking that photo for this sole purpose at the expense of the real experience. People continue to confuse this satisfactory presentation with happiness throughout their lives. In school, it’s the jam-packed resume to get into the “best” college. Later, it is the highly “successful” career. An accumulation of socially admired things is not the solution for anybody. Sure, we might think we impress society (though theoretically unlikely), but we forget to impress ourselves. We forget to meet our own needs, which might surprisingly not include anything that’s made to seem like a common goal. And that is okay. An amazing political science professor of mine said “there is no job I would rather be doing,” and I thought, I can’t remember the last time I heard anyone say such a thing. Pouring more into a cup is useless, when the cup is already filed.
The philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville wondered why the citizens of poor European villages seemed to be happier than their comfortably-living middle-class American counterparts. What other reason can one give but the endless pursuit of badly thought-out goals and lack of contentment in sight? It’s much like what is said about traveling: you cannot expect a trip to change you because whatever problems you have, you take them with you when you go. The same can be said about reaching goals. The “connected” person is someone who addresses their problems before they travel, and therefore ends up being less dependent on whether or not that travel ever takes place. They do not need to derive their contentment from travel, or their goals.
It is hard to be connected in a society which seems to value a mechanical existence consistent with disconnection. Nevertheless, it is the right choice to make. As creatures with limited time on Earth, there is little reason not to love every minute of the stay. Through loving what we do, and doing everything for its own sake, for our own peace, or for a higher self, we make the choice to be present and connected, not temporary. We make the choice to be happy, regardless of circumstance.