I may be two weeks late, but Happy New Year nonetheless! We’re already halfway through January, the dual month of beginnings and endings. For some reason, new followers have trickled in since my last post to the point where there are now around 600 of you. For some reason, over a week ago, I got offered a place at the University of Cambridge to read English. And thankfully, probably due to a rest from college work and all the positive messages I’ve been receiving, I’m in a much better place mentally than I was a month ago. I don’t know how long these good omens will last, but I’m definitely endeavouring to act on them.
Another week in the world of education, and another teenager, Ms Suzy Lee Weiss, has gone through the epiphany after several university rejections that university admissions systems are not fair. Well, no crap Sherlock.
Yes, yes, her writing is satire. Yes, it’s tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating; she’s got so much wit and cleverness that she’ll go far…yada yada yada yawn. That she’s smart enough to write a piece of social commentary and not appear stupid on television isn’t really that amazing. There are many teenagers, all across the world, at many different ages, who are capable of the same things. It’s not a magic Midas touch, it’s simply a matter of temperament. Yes, she’s clever, but she really shouldn’t be afforded some special attention just because she’s pointed out what most people have known for ages:
Fair systems are not really fair.
Actually, I can’t think of a system that is fair. Can you? They may work, certainly, but they may not be completely fair in that they may not work to the convenience of everybody. Usually the majority, but not everybody. There’s an often fundamental flaw in everything, from job application systems to traffic.
So, if I agree the system isn’t fair, what’s the problem with Ms Weiss’ article?
It exposes the deeper modern problem, I think, that generations of youth are raised to expect certain things. We are taught that when we do A, we will get B, when we do B, we get C…and so on. We are trained in nursery to get into junior school, at junior school we are trained to get into high school, and from high school we are trained to get into university and so on. When we complain that this rigid route doesn’t make us happy, we are promptly told that the only way we can be happy, truly happy, is to acquire the money that will enable us to be happy. No matter what we want to be, it is only money that will make it possible. And thus we return to the route.
Yes, it is a question of money.
Look, if people weren’t concerned about money and how they’d be able to feed themselves in the future, there would be less people going to university. There’d be less people working 9-5 hours in office jobs to make enough money to get into the job they actually want to do. We do these things only because the established route tells us that money is necessary to enable us to live adequately enough that we can find happiness. If money (and the prestige associated with it) was no object, the only people going on to higher education and caring about ‘Ivy League’ quality would be the people who found it truly delightful to learn. Which, unfortunately, is not that many teenagers.
Ms Weiss, like many other teenagers across the globe, appears stuck on this route. Her real complaint, although she may not realise it, is not the flawed admissions system but this flawed happiness system. Rejection by universities she felt entitled to attend opened her eyes to the flaws of the system. I think for a moment she realised that she had been lied to by her entire society, in that this search for money doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. This route is not as rigid as it appears; few people who follow it ever actually attain the comfortable monetary status they seek. The instability of college admissions opened Ms Weiss’ eyes to the variables which conflict with this goal. Yes, certainly money gives you time, resources and the opportunity to pursue happiness, more so than poverty or living on the bread line. But the mistake that is too often made is that many people are taught that money and happiness are interchangeable. And when they realise that this route is not so straightforward as one has been told, it leaves people shaken. You begin to question your life so far and you ask: what is the point of all of this? Why do I bother if I’ll never actually reach my goal?
In Weiss’ case, immediately after asking that question, she looked to find a source of blame so that she could move back onto the route. It’s the unfair admissions system stopping me, not anything I’ve done/not done.
What we need to do to stop this from happening is that we need to tell teenagers new things.
- Yes, trying is the way to success. But. Sometimes, no matter how much you try, you will not succeed in your goal.
- Often, this is because you have the wrong goal. You’re looking for success at the end of the road. Sometimes, ‘success’ is the happiness, the experience, the friends and the life you make as you travel down that road.
- Life isn’t fair, and it never will be.
- Happiness is a form of wealth. Wealth is not a form of happiness.
- Actually, do be yourself. It’s not what universities or employers are looking for, but it’s the way to be happy. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t get where they did faking it, they got where they did trying to do what made them happy.
Focusing on the unfairness of one particular stage of life never got anybody anywhere. Ms Weiss’ case will die down soon, and as she is already apparently from a good middle-class background, with a sister working for the Wall Street Journal, she’ll likely graduate and find her desired job soon enough. At some point she’ll likely realise that it makes not so much difference where you went to school but rather, what you got out of it.
Money isn’t necessary for a happy life. Definitely, a hand-to-mouth existence isn’t easy at all – I know that myself; my family is far, far from wealthy – but there’s something wrong with living to make money to enable you to live to make money. That is only living to survive. Supporting a family isn’t easy on low funds either, I understand that. Many people think the idea of seeking out only happiness is ridiculous liberalism, and that’s understandable, because after a certain age and set of experiences that is no longer an option. But I’d like to see a generation, just one, which told its children to live their lives seeking happiness, not ephemeral pleasure or money. Just happiness. Somehow, I don’t think they’d have the same problem. Because they wouldn’t go into it believing that things would be easy. But they’d go into life knowing that as hard as things got, they’d be happy at the same time.
At some point in the past you were born, and at some point in the future you’ll die. Living is not obsessing over trivial matters, but meaningfully making up the difference. And if you disagree with me, the comment section is just below.
…of an uncompleted dream is torturous, painful, and as already stated, never-ending. It is your failure trapped and suspended forever in purgatory, forever for you to look back and wistfully reminisce, because when you had the opportunity you did not take it. You did not dare, you did not try; you had the want but not the will. Often people fear the realisation of their own dream. Sometimes they call it impossible because they didn’t dare achieve it themselves. It is a simple fact that although the future of the world will only be determined by today’s dreamers, very few of today’s dreamers will determine the future of the world.
It’s true that sometimes it truly is difficult or nigh impossible to grasp at every opportunity. But many people aren’t sure what they want, if anything at all, and this second situation is a poor excuse for passing up the opportunities that come one’s way. An excuse in this habit creates an attitude of not striving at all, of underachieving. It is in cases like this that people look back in their older years, wishing for more time which will never come. Because they did not strive then to grasp what came their way, or to create their own opportunities.
Almost a year ago, I received my grades for my final high school year (Year 11). And they were good, but for me they weren’t great, and for a long while I was kicking myself over them. I still do sometimes, because I did not use the opportunities I had to do the best that I could. So now, in Year 12, I’ve made it a point to grab opportunities as they come. I became a class representative, I write for the newspaper, I entered an essay prize which has never been won by a state school student; I’ve applied for both a university and a creative writing residential course. I’ve learnt basic Mandarin, and my green owl friend to the right is helping me learn French and Spanish. I’ve enrolled in an online course offered by Harvard, and on school days I frequent the library so much that the librarians all know me on a first-name basis and chat to me about their children. And yes, I do find the time to sleep. 😉
Perhaps my opportunity-grabbing is excessive, but all I’m trying to say is that it’s better to go for opportunities than to waste them. They often don’t come back, and while it is possible it is also certainly harder to bring about your own. At the moment, I’m working with Year 11s who are failing their English course. The hardest part of the job is not teaching them the material, but convincing them that this last opportunity to improve their grades is worthwhile.
Maybe opportunities don’t always get you where you want to go, but they still leave you with valuable experience. They are not just the career or dream-related things, but also the little things which help you grow as a person. Whether that’s spending time with a family member when you otherwise wouldn’t have, or having a chat with friends when some days you feel you’d rather be alone, they help you as a person. They are experiences you will likely not regret having undertaken.
So chase those opportunities. Don’t over-burden yourself with them, but chase them. Especially if you don’t know where they’ll lead. Ask yourself, how many of your favourite memories were planned? Isn’t it better to turn the corner, blind, than to keep going and glancing back at what could have been?
St Paul’s Cathedral is one of those masterpieces of old architecture you come across in certain parts of England and the world, the sort of place you need know nothing about to be in awe of. I was one of two Christians on my school’s Philosophy trip to visit it; the two teachers were strong atheists and the rest of the students were either of the ‘Everyone knows God isn’t real’ hipster-atheist type or agnostics who had not given the idea much thought (until our God and the World module). Yet no matter our personal ideologies, everyone who entered that building went silent.
I’ve often wondered what it was that fell upon people in such places. Is it the idea that millions of others have walked where we walked, or that so much time had been devoted to religious art? Is it God? As a Christian, I don’t know. I do know that the Church is changing. I know that I, personally, have never been very fond of the Church anyway. Perhaps it is my history with African or ethnic churches, but I’ve always been inclined to seek God elsewhere. Today, many do. Apart from school students (my group and some primary school children), the vast majority of the worshippers I observed at the Cathedral’s Eucharist were at least over 50. The other Christian in our group, a girl, didn’t go up for Communion. In her own words, it was ‘embarrassing’ in front of the other students. Times are changing.
No matter your religion/irreligion, what do you think of the Church as a whole?
A few weeks ago, here in England, a same-sex marriage bill passed through the preliminary stages of Government approval. There was uproar from the Church, who felt their position would be weakened by it (I’m not entirely sure how, but that was one of their major complaints). A few days ago, yet another Catholic priest (Scotland, this time) stepped down from his position due to sexual misconduct. Around the same time, the Pope resigned from the Papacy (though obviously for different reasons).
I know some of you are religious, and I know that some of you are not. And that some of you are not sure. But we live in fast-changing times, and even if current change became minimal change would still happen. The world and its culture is constantly evolving, and like it or not the Church has continuously changed along with that evolution. Not that anyone would admit it, but it has. It’s members have changed too. Amongst other things, few people really believe the Bible word for word anymore and in the face of hypocrisies and controversies which have rattled the church, many have or have at least contemplated turning away.
Does this mean the death of God? Of course not. Perhaps it is the slow death of religion (well, decline, as I don’t believe religion will ever ‘die’) though, as people come to the realisation that faith in God or a god or gods is an entirely separate thing from religion. Because of this, religious institutions and believers are changing. Changing their attitudes and their behaviours and their lifestyles. They are not, though, really changing their faiths. Humans are naturally irrational creatures, and regardless of whether or not God exists we will always still believe in something ‘more’ out there. Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s nothing; maybe it’s aliens.
One of the hardest aspects of creating something, whether that is a novel or a blog post, is being criticised about your own creation. Because when you make it, it might seem the most perfect thing in the world to you, or something at least acceptable. Criticism, if not well-handled, acts as a swift, demotivating kick in the teeth. It’s why so many new writers, new bloggers, new artists, new <insert creative individual here> give up so quickly. They don’t yet know the secret of the successful people: criticism is the true chisel to your block of marble, not your own fanciful ideas and original ventures. That kick knocks you down, but to get anywhere, the frustration of it better make you get the hell up again.
Everyone’s been there. On WordPress, it’s the beginning of blogging and the stage where the novelty wears off, where you’re waiting for a like or comment. And one comes along, but it’s one of disagreement. Or you’ve settled on one topic for your blog, and someone comes along who says that they dislike the way you do things, that the way you write seems forced or unnatural.
And you get mad. Don’t deny it, you get mad.
Maybe you’re sure that you’re blogging about what you’re passionate about, and you think this guy’s obviously come to the wrong blog. And maybe you’re right, he has. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use his criticism. You can use it strengthen what you write, maybe to give readers notice about your blog’s focus, or to examine other opinions whilst maintaining your own. Because there is you, the blogger, and there is also your audience. Blogging is an exchange between blogger and audience, and wider opinion only means more is learnt and shared.
Many of you likely realise that I’m still working on my NaNoWrimo novel, which currently sits at around 59000 words. That may sound like a lot, but its still about 13000 words off my target goal. Recently I ventured back to an old writing support website I used to hang around, and posted a chapter excerpt to be reviewed. And I did get that kick in the teeth. And it was painful. Painful because I’ve kept the majority of my manuscript to myself, not shown it around to anyone, and somewhere in the process of writing I’d forgotten that creativity needs an audience. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, I’m determined to correct my mistakes and keep on working. The same thing happens in my college essays, but each time I get up again to try again. Eventually, I’ll get it. Eventually, you’ll get it. And if even one new creative mind elsewhere could get it, then that’s one more artistic and individual mind we have in our society. One more person who did not give in.
And yeah, sometimes criticism is just not constructive. Sometimes its just a load of crap, and you’re justified in ‘accidentally’ deleting that comment. While there’s a great joy to be had in criticism, the joy of improvement, sometimes it’s easier to ignore something non-constructive than to get in a mutually-degrading shouting match with what is more often that not a childish troll.
So, to get right into it, I now know a grand sum of four people who have attempted to take their own life. One was a friend in high school. Twice. In her own words, it was a cry for help, help that she eventually, thankfully, received. She’s doing better now. I see her around college, she shouts my name (all my friends do this, actually) and we chat for a while. Another is a current friend in college. She has family problems, she’s alcoholic and she gets high every now and then. She’s 17. She has scars on her arms from cutting, a problem I’m literally forcing her to get help for, and she told me a few weeks ago that she’s tried to hang herself before, in her bedroom. Another time, she downed a bottle of pills. She said that sometimes it felt like her life was falling through her hands. It’s odd, it’s incredibly sad and somehow it is life that across the world people who have not yet seen it no longer want to.
I’m not suicidal myself. In our college’s debating society, the motion was put forward recently that suicide was an inherently selfish act. In my Psychology class, we’ve recently discussed both the biological and environmental causes of depression. Only a few days ago, Mindy McCready, a fairly popular American country singer, committed suicide after a long bout of depression in her life. So where am I going with this?
What do we do to help people who are suicidal or depressed? Should we do anything?
In a number of religions, suicide is a major sin against God. In societies across the world, people who have attempted it or families with a suicide amongst them are stigmatised. I’m not sure why. I’m not entirely sure if it’s right. Is it part of human nature to shun those who remind us of the ever-present presence of death?
I’m almost sure that a few of my readers will know someone who has or has tried to commit suicide. As one of my teachers said: ‘I’m 31 and it’s a sad fact that at my age, you probably know someone who has died that way.’ How have you reacted to it, or tried to help that person?
Personally, I don’t care for the supposed right or wrong of suicide. I care, though, about losing the people I’ve grown close to. It’s one of those areas in my life which I often feel I have no control over, because sometimes no amount of positivity can bring people back from the edge they’ve reached. Right, wrong; that’s a very sad truth.
I almost feel I should apologise for such a heavy post after such a long absence. Unfortunately, though, while work has consumed much of my time, worry is a greater consumer. As I said above, sometimes we have to think about the hard things.
Do you still remember being six or seven and being taken to get new shoes with your parents? Or those hand-me-downs which used to belong to your brother until he didn’t want the grotty old things anymore? It was always that same phrase your mother would say when you raised your leg and your feet slipped out: “Well, you’ll grow into them.”